“Does the wide success of the three Khans (Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir) in Bollywood suggest that Indians are inherently secular unless politically motivated or manipulated to act otherwise?”

This is a question a woman asked me for a weekly podcast that I have begun doing on the website audiomatic.in. It is something that I have often thought about and, quite frankly, never been able to figure out conclusively. A variation of this is something that I am often asked when I am in Pakistan, where these is less exposure to Hindus, particularly in Punjab.

The editor-cricket administrator-politician Najam Sethi once observed that in Bollywood romances, if there was a Hindu-Muslim angle to the story, for instance in Mani Ratnam’s film Bombay, it was inevitably the boy who was Hindu while the girl was Muslim. That indicated, Sethi seemed to say, if I remember it right, that Indians would be reluctant to accept it the other way around (Muslim boy romancing Hindu girl).

Is this true? I would say not. While it may be true that some of Bollywood’s directors and writers might think so and therefore script their films accordingly, we need to look at reality. The fact is that the three Khans are either married to or in relationship with Hindus. Four Khans actually, if we include the not-as-successful Saif Ali Khan, married to Kareena Kapoor. There is little or no problem that their fans or Bollywood viewers in general have with this.

We could extend this to the screen and assume that there would be not much that would get the audience worked up in a fictional romance set around a Muslim male and Hindu female.

Misplaced caution

There is a second aspect to this and it comes from the nature of Bollywood’s content and our star system. In most Hindi movies, including the bigger productions, the character of the male lead is not particularly fleshed out and is flat and two-dimensional.

Salman Khan plays any character in the same manner, and that is assumed to be the real manner of Salman Khan the man. This tells us that the audience gravitates towards the man and not the character. It assumes that all the angularities and edges and dark places of the man as they have been introduced to through the media over the decades are true. It also tells us that they admire him for what and who he is. They would really have no problem with him playing a Muslim on screen romancing a Hindu girl.

The point about Bollywood being cautious about such things goes back to the days in which Muslim actors like Dilip Kumar thought they had to give themselves Hindu names to be acceptable. Was their caution justified? We can say from our experience of the great Khans that this is not so and societies don’t change so much in a few decades in our part of the world. Bollywood’s audience in the 1950s cannot have been very much different than it is today, six decades later.

Inherently tolerant

Of course, I accept that Bollywood is only an indicator, even if it is a very good one, given its reach, and that the history of community relations between the two faiths in India is patchy. We have had incidents of extreme violence, even if they are episodic and over the decades they seem to have lessened. And we have the segregation of the communities in neighbourhoods, particularly in more conservative cities like Ahmedabad and Vadodara where it is absolute and where such separation is encouraged by the state through laws like the Disturbed Areas Act.

But do these represent the broad thinking of the communities or are we, as that questioner suggests, inherently secular unless we are egged on to remember real or imagined grievances from the past? My view is that Indians, of all faiths, are tolerant. Secular is a complicated word and I do not know if I can use it in this instance. Tolerance is something that is inherently sub-continental. One might argue that it comes from the way that Hinduism in its various manifestations is practiced and how this has also coloured other faiths here. I accept that is likely true.

But this brings us to an interesting point and one that the questioner understood. The evidence suggests that we are not communities whose history is one of constant war interrupted by episodes of peace. It is the other way around, and even there the word war is inappropriate because such violence tends to be contained within certain geographical pockets. And so I agree with the questioner. Indians are inherently tolerant/secular unless we are manipulated and instigated. This thought made me feel quite good.