Aamir Khan and the Intolerance Debate

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Part 1

Now that it is clear that Aamir Khan’s latest movie, “Dangal”, is a blockbuster hit (it’s already recorded the second-highest opening of any movie in 2016), and with significant financial contributions in the form of ticket sales from the so-called right-wing brigade, it is time to go back in time a little and look at lessons learned and not learned. Lessons on brand management, on social boycotts and boycott-fatigue, and on adaptability.

On November 23, 2015, actor Aamir Khan jumped on the “intolerance” bandwagon and, in a conversation with Anant Goenka at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards function, made certain statements. The subject of “intolerance” bandwagon is beyond the scope of this article, but it should suffice to state that the “intolerance” tamasha was a media-orchestrated campaign to manufacture stories to malign the Narendra Modi Government as “intolerant” to minorities.

The Bollywood star said his wife “feared for her child” and that there was an “atmosphere” of “disquiet” in the country, and that Kiran (Khan’s wife) wanted to “move out of India” (IndiaTodayThe HinduIndian Express).

From a video clip available (one clip), it is instructional to hear what exactly Aamir Khan had to say (transcription mine):

“There has been a growing sense of despondency I would say [applause, claps]. I mean, when I sit at home and talk to Kiran, you know, Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India. For the first time Kiran says “Should we move out of India?” Now that’s a disastrous and very big statement for Kiran to make to me [claps, applause]. She fears for her child, she fears ... for you know what the atmosphere around us will be... err... she feels scared to open the newspapers every day. uh... so that does indicate that there is a sense of growing disquiet, there’s a sense of despondency...”

While mainstream media lapped up his statements wholly and uncritically, social media predictably went into a tizzy. For mainstream media, Aamir Khan’s statements were ripe fodder for the narrative it had been spinning ever since Narendra Modi came to office in May 2014, and even before that. Social media, on the other hand, had been meticulously deconstructing every single lie, exaggeration, half-truth, distortion, and selectivity that mainstream media spun out.

Since Aamir Khan was then a brand ambassador for online retailer SnapDeal, there were immediate calls for the company to drop the actor. It eventually did. Some in mainstream media, including journalists, one of whom had called for a one of whom had called for a boycott of Honey Singh in 2012, but by 2015 had turned into an anti-boycott diva, rubbished such calls of boycotting Aamir Khan as yet another example of “intolerance.”

This was not the first time that Aamir Khan had courted controversy – some say, deliberately, calculatedly. In 2005, Khan lent his name and signature to a “petition” by ANHAD, an NGO formed within months of the brutal, cold-blooded murder of more than 50 Hindus – men, women, and children – on a train in the Gujarat town of Godhra, and the ensuing riots. ANHAD would later come under scrutiny from the Government for “its undesirable activities against public interest” (link). 

ANHAD would claim to fight against communalism in the country, but the Union Ministry of Home Affairs would cite ANHAD for indulging in “undesirable activities that would increase inter sectarian tension among Muslims in India as well as increase fundamentalism.” The irony of Aamir Khan, a supposed “intellectual”, lending his signature to a petition by such an organisation would not be lost on most.

Then there was Satyameva Jayate, the “reality show on social causes”, where Aamir Khan cried (or pretended to cry – it’s never possible to tell) bucket loads of tears. Given that he charged 3 crores (approximately US $450,000) per episode for the first season, and ₹4 crores (approximately US $600,000 at today’s exchange rates) for the second season, one can only wonder.

Aamir Khan to then state that “If I look at it financially, commercially then I am earning less,” one can only speculate what those tears were about. That Aamir Khan has a right to be paid for his television or screen appearances is not in debate here. One could however point to the example of Amitabh Bachchan who did not charge a single paisa for the work he did as Gujarat’s brand ambassador, or for his work on the polio eradication campaign, but that may be setting the bar very, very high for Aamir Khan.

But what smacks of cold-blooded myth-making is for anyone to make the case that Aamir Khan is some noble, altruistic modern-day Bollywood mahatma. Far from it. While Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar was donating fifty lakh rupees rupees to Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan, an initiative by the Maharashtra Government to alleviate the water crisis in rural Maharashtra, Aamir Khan was content with “working” with yet another NGO that he himself had co-founded!

Whereas Snapdeal had extensively featured Khan in its ‘Dil Ki Deal’ print, television and digital campaigns, (link) it stopped featuring Aamir Khan in its advertisements almost immediately after the controversy broke out. The company sought to distance itself from the actor’s statements by saying Aamir Khan had made those comments in his “personal” capacity, nonetheless, when his contract came up for renewal in February 2016, SnapDeal chose not to renew it.

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