By Matt Hamilton
Last month, Bollywood star Salman Khan inflamed religious divisions when he appeared in public with prime minister candidate Narendra Modi.
Modi, from the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party, has been dogged by accusations that as governor of Gujarat, he allowed riots in 2002 between Hindus and Muslims to fester. More than 1,000 died – the majority of whom were Muslim. Despite charges of government complicity in the riots, Modi was cleared of wrongdoing by India’s highest court.
Khan, son of a Hindu mother and Muslim father, has a career that spans 25 years and includes 90 films.
The actor appeared with Modi at Uttarayan, an annual kite festival in Gujarat, and at first the headlines, like this one from the Times of India, were innocuous: “Salman Khan meets Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad.”
But images of Khan and Modi flying a kite and dining together splashed across newspapers and the internet, even on Modi’s Twitter feed. A firestorm erupted in Indian media, with the Times of India – the country’s largest newspaper by circulation – devoting more than a dozen stories to the matter.
Khan pushed back against criticism of his apparent support for such an unpopular leader among Muslims, praising Modi as a “good man” and adding that Modi need not apologize for the 2002 riots because of the judicial exoneration.
Within 10 days of Khan’s appearance with Modi, the All India Ulema Council – a coalition of Sunni Muslim sects – called for a boycott of Khan’s newest film, which was released Jan. 24.
Two weeks later, the Times of India said Khan “seemingly endorsed” Modi, and later quoted from another representative of an Islamic organization who wondered aloud in colorful language, “Did Salman feel the pain of women and children who suffered during the riots?”
When Khan’s latest film “Jai Ho” debuted to less-than-steller box office figures, the media blamed his alienating Muslim fans, one of whom told the Times of India: “Any Muslim joining Modi is condemnable.”
So why would a popular star appear with a leader who is so unpalatable to a large cohort of his fan base?
By way of explanation, Khan told a Times of India interviewer that he met with Modi “because I want to make Jai Ho tax free in Gujarat.” And reports in the TOI did confirm that Jai Ho received exemptions from the entertainment tax at the behest of the Gujarat chief minister’s office.
What was omitted from most publications – but present in the comment sections and more high-brow magazines like Open Magazine – was the apparent need Khan might have for robust political connections. He’s facing charges for a hit-and-run that killed one person more than a decade ago. “It is for the whole world to see that you are trying to support Modi so that he can return the favour later….:)” said one of many comments suggesting a quid pro quo was motivating Khan’s seeming endorsement.
And several international outlets like Reuters and The New York Times India Ink seized on the cinematic inadequacies of “Jai Ho” as an alternative explanation for the poor performance of film, in addition to the religious outcry.
Thus nuance and context – about the film’s quality, about Khan’s motives – was downplayed or omitted altogether. Instead, The Times of India opted to play up the conflict between Salman’s apparent support of Modi and resulting outcry from Khan’s Muslim fans.
It’s valid to cover this conflict – but ignoring the context and motives of the actors just generates heat for heat’s sake (and newspaper sales and clicks).