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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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No religion please, I am Shah Rukh!
Celebrity Circus

Blasphemous! The headline screams, “I am an ambassador of Islam!” Alongside is a photograph of dimpled superstar Shah Rukh Khan with the ubiquitous cigarette in hand.

One is sure that the actor would’ve had no clue which of his quote-worthy lines would make it to the headline. (In fact, there’s a tamer one on the website of the same weekly tabloid.) Nor would SRK have had even an inkling of the visual that would accompany his quote.

But then Shah Rukh’s statement itself was a bit discomfiting. The one who put the thought in the actor’s head was A.R. Rahman and Shah Rukh had only flamboyantly repeated it.

You can understand A.R. Rahman (a first-generation convert, he was born a Hindu) for the occasional need to reassure himself or reaffirm and reiterate his new faith.

But Shah Rukh has essentially been this easygoing Delhi boy, weaned on Ram Lila nights, with his own personal approach to religion.

On the one hand, Shah Rukh Khan will go to Egypt (to shoot Sooraj Hua Madhyam for K3G), feel a connection with God, drop to his knees, use the sand for his vazu (the mandatory ablutions before prayer) and pray traditionally.

On the other hand, he is the actor who, after his son, Aryan was born, caught a stranger by the collar in a public place for mentioning circumcision. Shah Rukh was shooting when a man from the crowd asked under his breath if the actor had got his son circumcised. SRK had ignored it but when the stranger repeated it, he caught him by the collar and blasted him. What had incensed Shah Rukh was the intrusion into private, sanctified space. He had reasoned, “Whether I get my son circumcised or not is my business and Gauri’s. We’ll do it if we want to and not because someone tells us to.”

Of course, those were the days when Shah Rukh got hot under the collar express fast and never hesitated to hit back when irritated. Those were the days when he also whipped the media into place and today, most of them are his friends.

But one does know that Shah Rukh has always treated any religious practice as a personal choice. For instance, in recent years you unfailingly hear that the superstar drove up at 3 am to personally pick an animal for sacrifice during Bakri Id. But what you don’t read about is that he cannot bring himself to do or watch the qurbani. To quote him, “I don’t do it (the qurbani) personally because I don’t think it’s right. Somebody is paid to do it in our name, on our behalf. My kids are too young to see it (a goat being sacrificed), although a lot of my Muslim friends have told me, ‘Shah Rukh, you must let them watch it’. But I feel they might feel squeamish, they might get scared. Besides, I don’t like animals being hurt. Personally, I feel you shouldn’t kill animals but there must be reasons for people to be doing it. God has allowed it. So we have to make our choices. When I go to jannat (heaven), which I believe I will, maybe God will say, you would’ve been at the top here but I wanted men to kill animals and you didn’t, so you go a few rungs lower. You never know, those are choices you have to make, I’ve made mine.”

To some extent, 9/11, his painful back problem which nearly felled him, and advancing years have brought Shah Rukh closer to his religious identity. One hears that for the first time Shah Rukh will play the title role of Khan in friend Karan Johar’s new film which, predictably, follows a family in the US, post 9/11.

He has played a Muslim only once before in Hey! Ram and he had very subtly inserted a Taveez-Bhagwan mix as his message in Chalte Chalte.

The actor once told me, “I can sell anything but I’ll never sell anything in the name of religion. I won’t play a Muslim guy just to get a Muslim audience.”

An actor who talks that way would definitely not want to use his religious identity to sell a tabloid. Or to gain brownie points with his community.

Incidentally, one can almost picture some people (mostly the Hindu ‘secularists’) shrug and ask, “So what if Shah Rukh calls himself an ambassador of Islam'”

I’d counter

Shilpa Shetty is a social ambassador of India at the moment. Do we call her the ambassador of Hinduism'

How would we like it if the identity of Amitabh Bachchan or Hrithik Roshan was narrowed to something like, AB: ambassador of Hinduism'

Or, John Abraham the ambassador of Christianity'

I rest my case.

Bharathi S. Pradhan is managing editor of Movie Mag International

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