How the drugs case involving Shah Rukh Khan’s son was a warning to Bollywood

·6 min read
Indian Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan waves to fans outside his house  in Mumbai (Getty Images)
Indian Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan waves to fans outside his house in Mumbai (Getty Images)

Shah Rukh Khan, arguably one of Bollywood’s most self-reflective voices, has sold an audacious brand of romance to generations of fans in India with his trademark cheek for over three decades.

But a month after his son Aryan walked out of jail on bail, having spent 26 days in custody in a drugs case, those who follow the inner workings of Bollywood believe that India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government is flexing its muscles to control the multi-billion dollar industry that runs on brand power. And the articulate, Muslim actor is a global brand.

The case sends a message to an alarmed industry that no one is above the scrutiny of the government.

“What does it say when a powerful figure [like Mr Khan] is forced into this position,” Ranjani Mazumder, professor of cinema studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, tells The Independent.

“You send a message that we can go after even the big guys. Imagine the terror that spreads in the country,” she says.

On 2 October, 24-year-old Aryan Khan, along with seven others, was detained by plainclothes drug enforcement agency officers while he was allegedly onboard a cruise ship for a two-day “musical voyage”.

After the raid, the Narcotics Control Bureau revealed it had recovered assorted illicit substances and Rs 130,000 (£1,260) from the luxury liner. It charged Aryan with “involvement in consumption, sale and purchase" of illicit substances.

During the days that followed, Shah Rukh Khan’s face — lined with worry — was splashed across media outlets in India.

“The whole thing started feeling fishy very soon after,” film critic Sucharita Tyagi notes.

“When you find out the quantity [of drugs recovered], that [Khan’s] bail is being denied multiple times, that there is this private detective who [was caught up in the whole incident] but has now gone missing, you’re not sure what to make of the story anymore,” Tyagi explains.

Film critic Rohini Ramnathan says “something bigger was going on”.

“To me, they are making an example of this boy [Aryan],” she says, highlighting the case of stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui, who was arrested on New Year’s Day in 2021 on the charge that he meant to make jokes that would hurt religious sentiments of Hindus. Faruqui spent 37 days in jail before India’s Supreme Court granted the 28-year-old stand-up comedian interim bail.

“Over the last couple of months, there has been a systematic targeting of young Muslim men in India,” Ramnathan says, noting the similarities between Aryan and Faruqui’s arrests. “These are both young Indian men, in the public eye, whose only fault could be that they are from a certain religious background,” she says.

But Aryan is not the public figure in this case; his father is.

The romantic hero of evergreen Bollywood love stories like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is called “King Khan” by his fans despite modest beginnings and the status of an “outsider”.

Khan was born and raised in capital New Delhi, where he attended a Christian missionary school and completed his graduation from the University of Delhi.

His first break in showbiz came in 1988 with a Hindi language television show on India’s public broadcaster. Two years later, when his mother passed away from cancer, he moved to Mumbai to pursue a career in films.

Khan has starred in over 60 movies, 17 of which have garnered over Rs 1bn ($13m) each, he owns a production company and has won multiple national and international awards, while acknowledging the role fans played in his rise. His 2016 film “Fan” is a doff of the cap to stardom and the complex relationship actors share with millions of admirers in a movie-obsessed nation.

“He’s the kind of star I wouldn’t mind admiring because he’s intelligent, well-read and well-travelled, he has a strong philosophical sense and he’s extremely interesting to talk to,” says film critic Ankur Pathak.

While interviewing the actor in a highly publicised 2015 interview for Khan’s 50th birthday, journalist Barkha Dutt asked him to comment on the political climate of the country, especially in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s ascension to power, Khan answered that religious intolerance will take India back to the dark ages.

“There is nothing less important than religious intolerance,” Khan said, adding that it is “not the way forward” for any country.

Journalist Kaveree Bamzai recalls the actor was "terribly trolled” following the interview. Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a staunch Hindutva supporter, compared Khan to a terrorist.

Actor Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh’s contemporary was also trolled when he said he was “alarmed” by the rise in intolerance in India in 2016. The big-billing superstar became the subject of a vitriolic online campaign that resulted in e-commerce platform Snapdeal removing him as its brand ambassador.

Ultimately, Pathak says, everyone is aware that if you do take a position, it is inevitable that people will come after you. Income tax raids carried out at filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and actor Taapsee Pannu’s residences in Mumbai earlier this year were slammed by many from the industry as vindictive because both Kashyap and Pannu have been vocal critics of Modi. The official line was that the raids probed alleged tax evasion.

Bamzai, who wrote the book titled The Three Khans: And the Emergence of a New India, says the present government understands the immense soft power Bollywood wields. "Which is precisely why it’s trying to control it.”

The government has also been roping in prominent members of the Bollywood industry to espouse its ideas of nation building. “And not everyone has fallen into line,” Bamzai added.

The three Khans that Bamzai refers to include Shah Rukh, Aamir, and Salman Khan — Bollywood’s most successful A-listers. They were notably absent from a selfie of PM Modi taken with popular actors ahead of the 2019 elections.

“Even if you are not a Shah Rukh fan, his impact is undeniable," Tyagi says. Ultimately if there is a regime, or a ruling party, or a government, that is looking to harness the power of pop culture icons, then Khan holds the most power in that ecosystem, she reasons.

Aryan Khan (C), son of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (AFP via Getty Images)
Aryan Khan (C), son of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (AFP via Getty Images)

Many of Khan’s film industry colleagues did not publicly come out in support of the actor, and experts say it’s because a climate of fear and self-censorship has gripped the industry.

There was an outpouring of support and love for the actor online as #MySRKStory began trending on Twitter. Everyone, it seemed, had a Shah Rukh Khan story to share and, according to economist Shrayana Bhattacharya, that is his true power.

Bhattacharya is the author of a new book, Desperately Seeking Shahrukh that explores Indian women’s relationship with livelihood, independence, and freedom through stories of Shah Rukh’s fandom. One of the important themes of the book, she said, is deconstructing the power of an icon.

“Something I found really remarkable about Mr Khan is that everywhere I went, his icon created this space – because of his songs, scenes, and interviews – that allowed people to talk about themselves in very thoughtful ways,” the economist says.

Pathak believes Khan’s celebrity was unaffected by the scandal for a more romantic reason. He is a man who taught us how to love, he says, recounting Khan’s most successful on-screen avatar: the lover.

Hate cannot cause even a minor dent in his legend, he says.

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