KARACHI, Pakistan — The Bollywood megastar Shahrukh Khan is causing a stir in Pakistan — and not because he has a new film out. He published anarticle last week describing at length how he feels persecuted and stereotyped for being a Muslim.
He especially lamented having to defend the extremism of other Muslims: “Whenever there is an act of violence in the name of Islam, I am called upon to air my views on it and dispel the notion that by virtue of being a Muslim, I condone such senseless brutality.”
And he admitted that he gave his children names that would not easily identify them as Muslims. “I imagine this will prevent my offspring from receiving unwarranted eviction orders and random fatwas in the future,’’ he wrote.
For days, Khan’s article has made headlines here, with special TV news packages including clips from his films dramatizing his perceived plight as a Muslim. At dinner parties, people have been debating how Bollywood’s leading man could possibly have such a rough time.
This response sheds new light on the ever-complicated relationship between Pakistan and India.
On Sunday, Hafiz Saeed, founder of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is believed to be behind the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, invited Khan to move to Pakistan and “live here as long as he wants.”
Unwilling to be upstaged by an extremist, especially in an election year, Pakistan’s interior minister, Rehman Malik, called for India to provide security for Khan. This sparked a war of words, with India’s home secretary, R.K. Singh, claiming that India is capable of protecting its citizens. (Malik laterconceded in a tweet that his counterpart had the situation under control.)
That militants and ministers were moved to respond to Khan’s article says a lot about Pakistan’s tangled relationship with India.
Weddings here pulse to the soundtrack of Bollywood films; movie theaters pack in audiences with each release from across the border; Indian soap operas dominate television ratings; and there is no shortage of star-struck Shahrukh fans. Driving through the streets of Karachi and Peshawar, I have seen dozens of barber shops adorned with posters of Khan. A film about a young boy’s obsession with the actor, “Shahrukh Khan Ki Maut” (“The Death of Shahrukh Khan”), won hearts and acclaim at a film festival here in 2005.
Yet politicians like Malik and Saeed can’t help but exploit the public’s appetite for Indian culture to serve their political ends. It is a tragedy that public affinity for a popular actor is twisted and used to fuel, rather than overcome, antagonism.
Malik’s concerns for Khan’s safety were expressed days after cease-fire violations along the Line of Control in Kashmir almost jeopardized the recent détente. By engaging Khan’s statements, Malik sought to grab moral high ground and take a parting shot at India just as bilateral tensions were easing: Cross-border trade and travel resumed this week.
At a time when many Pakistanis are hankering for improved ties and people-to-people contact with India, “savvy” P.R. seems like part of the problem.