Bridging the Communal Gap: The Politics of “Hindu-Muslim” Salman Bhaijaan

Gohar Siddiqui. South Asian Popular Culture. Volume 18, Issue 3. 2020.

In January 2014, Hyderabad MP and the president of the political party All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (All India Council of the Union of Muslims) in Telangana, Asaduddin Owaisi raised hue and cry when Bollywood actor Salman Khan flew kites at a festival in Gujarat with Narendra Modi, who is the Prime Minister of India and leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Owaisi used this example of his support of Modi to indicate Salman Khan’s lack of Muslimness and said, “Naam Salman rakhne se koyi Salman nahin ho jaata; Salman to Rushdie bhi hai’’/One doesn’t become Salman (Muslim) simply because of their Muslim name; after all, Rushdie is also named Salman (Indianoon). Thus, Salman Khan, like Salman Rushdie, is no longer considered Muslim through Owaisi’s extremist lens. Ultimately, Owaisi directed all of his anger to convince Muslims to boycott Salman Khan’s films. And yet, despite Salman Khan’s complicated position vis-à-vis his religious and political affiliations, his Muslim fan base remains unshaken.

In this paper, I will analyze the intersection of fandom and star persona of Salman Khan to discuss how his stardom is a product of negotiations among the public discussions of his religious identity, interviews that seek to convey his star image as the real Salman Khan, and the cinematic construction of him as a religious hybrid, Hindu-Muslim, star as articulated through his roles, performance, and body. His star persona impacts the interpretation of his films within local, national, and global imaginaries. The implicit positioning of Salman Khan across the Hindu-Muslim divide becomes explicit through his roles in Ek tha Tiger (2012) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). By locating stardom as a productive site of analysis, my investigation of Khan demonstrates stardom’s key role in organizing discourse around films, with star meanings and associations extending from the cinematic sphere into the political and vice-versa. This paper proposes that Salman Khan’s stardom actively engages with anti-Muslim sentiment and instead posits a, perhaps utopian, solution based in religious tolerance for a secular India.

Scholarship on Salman Khan indicates his difference from the other two Khans, Aamir and Shahrukh, that dominate Hindi cinema in terms of their audience appeal, their particular embodiment of masculinity, and their position as Muslim stars within a context of growingly communal India. While all three are super stars, their stardom clearly shows evidence of product differentiation. In contrast to his more suave and cosmopolitan counterparts that are popular with urban and diasporic audiences, Salman Khan is known as the star of the masses and the working class. He has been dogged by controversies throughout his career and has been known to be unprofessional and rude until recently (Anna Vetticad). Lately, especially after the release of his film Wanted (2009), there has been a more positive transformation of his star image that has attracted more diverse audiences. But his working class and rural fans, who lovingly call him bhai/brother, had remained steadfast even before he revamped his image and before his films had become superhits. Salman Khan’s stardom, however, is growingly determined within the context of religion and secularism, particularly as it pertains to the nation. Shohini Ghosh argues that Khan’s largely subaltern Muslim fan base is a result of rise of fundamentalist Hinduism/Hindutva in 1990s India (“In Bajrangi Bhaijaan”). I am interested in this recent shift in his stardom made possible by the synergy between his Muslim following, economic imperatives, his films, and the public conversations which acquire meaning and shape interpretation of his image and his films within the political context of national and global Islamophobia.

Salman Khan’s Stardom: Religious Hybridity of Hindu-Muslim Bhaijaan

Richard Dyer explains that star images are constructed by all that is publicly available about a star, are historically situated, and display how the audience’s ideas about a star can act back and influence the star’s image (3). In the case of Salman Khan, his embrace as bhai or brother by the fans affects the media production of his image, his film performances that increasingly include the address to this fan base, and the public conversations about his identity. However, this identification, and even the imposition of this star-status on to him, is because of how Salman Khan tapped into national debates about religion and belonging. The publicity machinery, his roles in his films, his off-screen persona, and his fandom create a narrative of his religious identity as tied with his star image as Hindu-Muslim bhaijaan.

Speaking about the heightened communalization in India since the 1990s, Ghosh argues that Muslim citizens were seen as disloyal and “unreliable citizens”: “the anxiety suffered by the ordinary Muslim—who could be randomly targeted for interrogation, torture and incarceration merely on the basis of suspicion—found reflection, as it were, in the unpredictable vicissitudes that beset Salman Khan” (“The Irresistible Badness”). Jigna Desai and Rani Neutill, while discussing Hindi films after 2005, argue that the Muslim subject and Islam itself are depicted as the primary threats against a ‘Hindu India;’ associating terror and violence with Islam “through a range of figures spanning from the internal Indian Muslim (the outsider-within), [and] the nearby Muslim (the threat of Pakistan) …, many films forward Islam’s violent incompatibility with secular or tolerant Hindu India” (Desai and Neutill 148). While Pakistan had been the enemy in a lot of war films in the late 1990s and onwards, some films produced post-2005 implicitly invoke the connection between global Islamic terror and the terror faced in India against Muslims, who are often seen as tied with Pakistan. The interpretations surrounding Salman Khan’s films, particularly Bajrangi Bhaijaan and the conversations around his stardom since Wanted (2007) tackle these Islamophobic connections and introduce distinct Indianized secular visions that critique the secularism of the democratic state.

Popular Hindi cinema has been instrumental in constructing a national secular identity that, unlike western conceptions of the concept, does not necessarily separate religion from politics. Ashis Nandy has discussed in detail the limitations faced in the post-independent nation to secularize Indian society and has discussed the two versions of secularism that exist—one that is a western import and devalues religion, and the other, which he calls an Indianism, is the opposite of ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and fanaticism (35-36). Nandy delineates the problems in the Indian version but he also indicates that modern western secularism is seen as suspect as well. Thus it is that the religious confluence of Hindu and Muslim in Salman Khan’s stardom aligns with a kind of secularism that critiques the rising Hindu fundamentalism without erasing respect for both religions. Indeed, in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, this Indian secular vision can be seen to harken back to older Hindi masala films like Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) where the themes of lost and found, use of pathos, and melodramatic utopian resolution underscore a national (familial) unity that overcomes communal borders. The film legitimizes his Muslim fandom that has contributed to his star image and connects that with this secular imagining of the nation that is anti-fundamentalist.

The technology of star construction is very evident in vectors that reveal the nurturing of Salman Khan’s Muslim fandom and his transition from the neutral bhai to an Islamicate Bhaijaan—news coverage around the release of his film, the construction of his star image through his roles, and the invocation of an Indian secularism through his stardom. In the rest of the paper, I will analyze these areas to highlight the slippage between his roles and his personality/identity, which situates his Hindu-Muslim star image as an interruption to dominant anti-Muslim sentiments in the country.

News Coverage: Fandom and Stardom

I looked at different newspapers in India and Pakistan to explore how Salman Khan’s recent films were being promoted and received after release and immediately noticed patterns in how the language constructs the star and the relationship between his image, his films, and his fans/viewers. I looked at newspaper articles in (a). English from urban centers in India, mostly New Delhi; (b). regional language, which is Hindi, from Delhi and from Uttar Pradesh; (c). English from UAE and Pakistan; and (d). Urdu from Pakistan. While the leading English circulations in urban centers speak about release dates and box office numbers, the local Hindi newspapers use sensational headlines and bring in other aspects of Salman Khan’s films. As examples, here are some headlines from English newspapers from New Delhi:

Bajrangi Bhaijaan Storms the Box Office on Opening day” (Jha)

“Bollywood’s Biggest Friday Release’ (Tehelka)

“Salman Khan-Eid Bond Grows with Ek tha Tiger Sequel” (Vijayakar)

In stark contrast are headlines from Hindi newspapers from Uttar Pradesh:

“Har Baar Salman ko Box Office par Fans se Mil Jaati hai Badi Eidi” / “Each Time Salman gets Eidi from his Fans” (Pratibha Kumari)

“Is Baar Eid ki Party Salman ki Taraf se, Dekhiye unka Invitation” / “Welcome to the Eid Party from Salman, Look at his Invite” (Monika Sharma)

Bajrangi Bhaijaan ne Jeeta Pakistan ka Dil” / “Bajrangi Bhaijaan won Pakistan’s Heart” (Rajesh Niranjan)

While both have sensationalistic headlines, the urban newspapers remain more distanced as opposed to the rural newspapers that use conversational language that constructs an intimacy of the reader with the star. So, while Times of India indicates how Salman Khan has blocked Eid for his film releases, the Hindi papers mention how the fans give Salman Khan Eidi (a token given on the Muslim festival of Eid by elders to younger people in the family) in the form of box office revenue.

Fan activity where fans bring gifts or tokens to the star is particular to fandom in India and separates it from western articulations of fandom and stardom. I am drawing the comparison between English and urban elite readership as opposed to Hindi and rural/working-class readership here to argue how the Hindi papers use personal language about the star, as if there is a relationship and kinship that these readers have with the star via Eidi. While discussing the gift-bearing fan devotion “specific to Indian fan practices,” Neepa Majumdar ascribes an indexical relationship that is desired and established between the fan and the star through these gifts (“Embodiment and Stardom …” 146). Such fan relations certainly exist for Salman Khan, but this public acknowledgment and simultaneous construction of Eidi as the gift functions at a dual level too—as almost DNA by creating a filial relationship between his fans and the star, and by monetizing this relationship in constructing the star as the commodity for purchase.

Religion and working-class terms connect fans across borders of nation in this case via media construction and fan response. A similar headline in an Urdu Pakistani newspaper, the Daily Jung, mentions the opposite: “Salman Khan ki Janib se is Baar ki Eidi – Tubelight /This Year’s Eidi from Salman Khan” (Rehan Ahmed). Thus, this symbiotic relationship between Salman Khan and his fans is both affective and economic and explains both: how Salman Khan’s fanbase is consolidated and how he becomes Sallu bhai and gradually bhaijaan. The bhaijaan status for his Muslim fans continues as headlines for his next film’s release refer to him as Sultan bhaijaan. The Daily Jung reveals the investment that the fans have in Salman Khan films as well, especially considering that Eid is the biggest festival there. There were 14 articles about him published in this newspaper between May and June 2017 prior to the release of his film, Tubelight (2017). Many articles made direct connections with Eid in terms of how the fans await his films across different countries.

As utopian as this anti-communal India-Pakistan unity sounds, it is connected to the matter of economics as part of publicity. Eid is part of Salman Khan’s fandom and is commodified as a result. In India, Eid is the most profitable time for Salman Khan and therefore, it is usually blocked for the release of his films. The big festivals have historical evidence of strong business, says an exhibitor (Gianchandani), and therefore are highly desired for new film releases (Jha “Bollywood is Less Skeptical”). Salman Khan’s Sultan (2016), [which] netted more than Rs. 300 crore [30 million] and proves that the actor cannot be taken on (Jha “Bollywood is Less Skeptical”). The sentiment is echoed by the industry; in an interview, Karan Johar was asked if he would release his film on Eid and he replied in no uncertain terms: “No. Eid release is owned by Salman Khan” (“Karan Johar Says …”). Johar continues and sheds light on the economics behind recognition of fandom to target customers. He says, “We are here not just to release a movie, but it should be in a manner to optimize the number. So, as a producer and studio (that we are partnered with) we have to keep certain things in mind.” Johar, then, makes explicit what Majumdar has argued—that stardom, in Indian cinema, “take[s] over the function of product identification that genres have had in Hollywood cinema” ( Wanted Cultured Ladies Only 11). Here, given the Muslim fan base—that believes in the new Eid ritual of going to see bhai’s film on Eid—the festival itself has been commodified as part of Salman Khan’s stardom.

From Fans to Films: Imposed Muslimness of Bhaijaan

The stardom of Salman Khan in this instance as Sallu-bhai then easily has an in-built customer base. But I am more interested in how the recognition of his Muslim fans impacts his films and the construction of his star image. I argue that he no longer remains bhai but becomes bhaijaan or, more accurately, Hindu-Muslim bhaijaan—the Muslimness a fan-based imposition on his star image that he later embraces. In an interview, Salman Khan was asked a question about the protests regarding the name of the film and he rationalizes the choice of the word, bhaijaan, in terms of cultural context: “They had objected to our title ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ because of the latter word. We told them that if the film was based in Maharashtra, it would have been named ‘Bajrangi Bhau.’ In Punjab we would call it ‘Bajrangi Paaji’ and in Uttar Pradesh, ‘Bajrangi Bhaiya!’ We were using ‘Bhaijaan’ because that is how he would be addressed in Pakistan!” (R M Vijayakar). His response here, while valid, skirts around the issue at hand—the connection of Urdu and Muslimness associated with the word bhaijaan evokes Pakistani and Indian Muslim associations while joining it with Bajrangi, a Hindu deity. Notably, he doesn’t overtly embrace the imposition of bhaijaan here but he does not reject it either. His stardom then, despite its clear economic aspects, is not just anti-Islamophobic in the context of communal India but undoes the construction of Pakistan as enemy.

While this Muslim identity attributed to him is, as I said earlier, based in an identification that fans feel with the star, it remains largely unrelated to the roles he plays. Of all the films under discussion here except for Sultan, Salman Khan has played Hindu characters; yet his films, especially the Eid releases, have a Muslim flavor, which is often indicated through cultural codes, mise-en-scène, or through references to Pakistan. For instance, in Dabangg, a story set in Uttar Pradesh, Muslim culture is invoked even though the film does not have a single Muslim character. Shohini Ghosh briefly mentions that in the romantic song, “Tere mast mast do nain,” Chulbul Pandey follows Rajjo across the town to a Muslim mohalla or neighborhood (“Irresistible Badness”). The production design of this mohalla is perfect to the last detail in this evocation of overt Islamic culture. The unprovoked shift in mise-en-scène immediately indicates the non-diegetic nod to the Eid release through this relocation of the characters in a setting that has religio-cultural significance. Sonakshi Sinha’s clothes change from her ghaghra to a salwar suit where the dupatta covers her head—indicating a change from Hindu to Muslim cultural coding. Her movement across the frame reveals that the manner in which she performs sharm-o-haya (flirtatious coyness) when she averts her gaze would remind the viewers of Muslim femininity as encoded in Islamicate films. Other minor characters make this specific invocation to Muslimness explicit as well. The male characters that break out into dance with Salman Khan are all clad in kurta pajamas and topis (the Muslim skull cap).

Despite his roles as Hindu characters, the impact of his fandom on his films reveals this alternative Muslim aspect of his star image that is exploited by director Kabir Khan in his two films. In Ek tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, both Eid releases, this Hindu-Muslimness of Salman’s identity gets pushed to the forefront and now includes Pakistan as a representation of the Muslim, an uneasy slippage that has existed in the othering of Muslims (particularly male Muslims) in India and on the post-1990s Bollywood screen as always already not Indian, anti-national, and terroristic (Desai and Neutill). In both these films, Salman Khan plays Indian and Hindu characters but his primary affective relationship is established with a Pakistani Muslim, thus contesting the notion of Pakistani Muslim as anti-Hindu and anti-Indian.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan literalizes the expansion of Salman Khan’s star image from bhai to bhaijaan but the process had already been under way with Ek tha Tiger that had imagined a Hindu/India-Muslim/Pakistan unity via romance. Given the context of his Muslim fandom, these two films directly position Salman Khan’s screen persona in conversations about religion and nation and critique the home grown, desi-flavored, Islamophobia which is simultaneously transnational because it straddles the borders of India and Pakistan and ends up fortifying the ideals of a national Hindu fundamentalist state for India. Since Indian Islamophobia has found more support in the post 9/11 world because of wide-spread and increasingly intensifying global anti-Muslim sentiment, Salman Khan’s stardom then potentially resists local and global Islamophobia. Both Ek tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhaijaan use two characters who are clearly identifiable as Indian in the category of films that deal with Indo-Pak relations. In Ek tha Tiger, Salman Khan plays the role of Avinash Singh Rathore, codenamed Tiger, who works for the intelligence agency of India (RAW), and therefore represents the institution of the state. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he plays the role of a devoted Hanuman bhakt, the god associated with vanar sena and the extremist wing of the conservative political party in power at the time of the film’s release, Bharatiya Janata Party. Both characters represent the nation and, in both films, the characters played by Salman Khan are Hindu but they represent an alternative to the extremist Hindu identity which is defined in its opposition to and hatred of the Muslim.

In Ek tha Tiger, a romantic relationship between Tiger and ISI (Pakistani intelligence agency) agent, Zoya dramatizes the India-Pakistan oppositionality. While the two spies had been working for their countries and against each other, they fall in love. The culminating scene of the film is a phone conversation between Tiger and his boss, Shenoy, where Shenoy accuses Tiger of forgetting his duty to the nation in loving the Pakistani agent. Tiger defends himself by saying that he remembered his duty and he remembered his training but then adds “I realized that beyond duty and training, Tiger is a human being too.” Duty and training get aligned with nation and religion, and the idea of being human inserts a critique of these borders that dehumanize the religious and national other. The appeal to the human here (also a tongue-in-cheek reference to Salman Khan’s NGO, Being Human) transcends the religious and national borders and questions the othering of the Pakistani as non-human. But the film’s critique of these borders becomes even more trenchant with the final dialogue of the film where Tiger ends the conversation with the dialogue, “the day India and Pakistan don’t need RAW and ISI, we will come back.” So, while the love plot of the film sutures over religious and ideological conflicts between the two states and provides the melodramatic resolution, the refusal of a happy ending where the two cannot find a home in their own “homes” is an absolute critique of these very conflicts based in religion-based hatred, which in this case is directed towards India and therefore is a critique of Islamophobia that underwrites the imagined construction of the nation state.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan uses a similar format where Pawan Chaturvedi, who is a Brahmin Hanuman devotee, goes through a journey of loving and caring for a Muslim child, Munni, in trying to return her to her parents in Pakistan and, through the process, presents the triumph of human love that crosses religious and state borders over hatred and fear of the other, in this case the terrifying Muslim and Pakistani other represented by a mute innocent girl. Salman Khan’s introduction in the film is through the “Selfie” song which is in praise of Lord Hanuman. About 600 dancers, most of them children, dressed in saffron as mini Hanumans (resembling Hanuman’s vanar sena/monkey army) perform along with Salman Khan in front of a huge Hanuman idol. The song underlines Pawan’s devotion to Hanuman, which is later reemphasized by the name given to him, Bajrangi. The happy song situates Bajrangi between the vanar sena and the big Hanuman statue, ultimately ending with Bajrangi at the center surrounded by a sea of red as if he himself has literally become Bajrangi, not just the god but also the ideological symbol of RSS, the extremist wing of the political party, BJP. Indeed, the last frame of the song is suffused by the red color that resembles blood and serves as a grim reminder of Hindutva laced religio-political events and of communal hatred through these visual associations even as the happy lyrics speak of love and harmony.

The complex politics of the song are deliberate. Director Kabir Khan discussed its subversiveness in an interview for Indian Express:

I feel strongly about unity, secularism, and people-to-people friendship. I’m a product of a mixed marriage. Growing up, I saw the celebration of both cultures. How can right wingers claim Bajrang Bali as theirs? He’s mine too. I played the role of Lord Hanuman in a school play. It bothers me to see how we are becoming increasingly intolerant. Why can’t a Muslim say Jai Shri Ram? Or why can’t a Hindu say Assalamualaikum? … I wanted to discuss the Hindu-Muslim issue and in order to bring it all out in the mainstream consciousness, I needed Salman’s superstardom. He also feels strongly about secularism and instantly agreed to the film. (H. Singh)

Given that the songs get released before the film does, set expectations for the film because they function as promotional materials, and have an afterlife long after the film has stopped running in the theaters, the “Selfie song” becomes important especially as it articulates both Kabir Khan’s and Salman Khan’s politics. Kabir Khan uses Salman Khan’s stardom as a vehicle for this film because his fan base is so huge but also, as he claims, because the star’s secular politics align with the director’s vision. The star’s anti-sectarian stance is thus both used and emphasized through his screen performance.

This secularism extends to reception of the song as well; the song was released before the film and became a huge hit on Twitter while all the promotional material for the film had already framed its reception by saying that it carried an “interfaith story” ( Staff). Another article on NDTV website, one of the leading news channels, carries a still from the song with the title, “In ‘Selfie Le Le Re’ song, Salman’s epic picture with his Bajrangi bhaijaans” (P. Prashar). The talk surrounding the release of the film and the song are attempts to defamiliarize the Hindutva associations imposed on Bajrangi and even Hindu religiosity. Not only is Pawan (and therefore Salman Khan) Bajrangi (read: Hindu god) bhaijaan (read: Muslim brother), the picture indicates that so are all the little hanumans in the song his Bajrangi bhaijaans.

Food is an important marker of the problematic religious distinction that the film articulates but then complicates through the “Chicken song”—the grouping of Hindus and Muslims as vegetarians and meat eaters, respectively. At first, when Pawan does not know who Munni is, he brings her to the house of Dayanand, his father’s friend who like Pawan is deeply religious and intolerant of differences. The first time they meet, the two bond over their distaste for the smell of cooking meat that Dayanand immediately attributes to their Muslim neighbors. Dayanand also hates Pakistan, a fact that repeatedly comes up when they watch cricket. Even though there are no central characters that are Indian Muslims in this film, their presence is invoked through this hatred which foregrounds the extra diegetic reality of the tenuous link imposed between Indian Muslims and Pakistani people.

Munni’s love for meat confuses the vegetarian Pawan but thinking that she might be a Hindu Kshatriya, he tries to get her food that she likes. The film thus punctures the ideal of Hindu Brahmanical-ness that Pawan and Dayanand embody and then provides an alternative through Pawan’s slow transformation into someone who reinterprets his religion in terms of love and understanding. Set in a Muslim neighborhood, the “Chicken song” functions as a visible contrast to the “Selfie song.” Pawan and Rasika take Munni to this area so she can eat meat and that’s where they find out that she is Muslim, and later that she is from Pakistan. Where the film had earlier shown the Bajrangi song, here the song is an ode to the non-vegetarian foods that are emblematic of Muslim cuisine in Delhi—biryani, chicken, and nalli-nahari. Kabir Khan’s deployment of songs is crucial to this film’s religious politics. Where the “Selfie song” was his refusal to let right wing Hindutva groups own Bajrangi, the “Chicken song” is “subversive politics at heart” (Singh). He further reveals that the genesis of the song was beef ban in Maharashtra and the rising intolerance against Muslims and lower caste people in the country (Singh).

This song is instrumental in showing Pawan’s acceptance of Munni who eats meat but also his palpable discomfort in Muslim spaces and about Munni’s religious identity. This is a turning point in the film when Bajrangi’s bhaijaan-ification starts and he gradually begins to love her and the Muslim communities via her. The child thus functions doubly—as the affective center for the audience identifying with Pawan in accepting her, as well as an innocent who humanizes the Muslim. The film also shows the mistrust and fear from the other side; the Pakistani embassy disallows him to legally enter Pakistan. The government and institutions are critiqued for their intolerance, but the Pakistani people are presented as compassionate and welcoming. Bajrangi gradually transforms into someone who respects and loves these people and their religion. The film even shows his transformation via visual markers; he offers salaam to the imam who helps him while taking leave, he wears a burqa/veil to hide himself, and most of all, his closest relationships in this half of the film, represented often in two-shots, are with Munni and Chand Nawab, the bumbling Pakistani reporter. The film thus constantly presents what Kabir Khan and Salman Khan have mentioned in interviews as a secular vision which is based in respect and love of religious differences and aligns with the Indianism of secularism that Nandy has discussed. Ek tha Tiger had ended with a rejection of India and Pakistan as long as the two nations’ identities were enmeshed with hatred and intolerance based in religion. There the romantic couple had decided to eschew both spaces because those are not spaces where a happy ending can ever happen. Here, the film closes in the space/fences between the two national borders, where Bajrangi bhaijaan appears like Moses, traversing this space where a possible unity is imagined. Like Ek tha Tiger, there is a critique of borders and walls that fuel hatred along communal lines and instead the film offers an alternative that involves crossing these borders, which have been messy spaces marked by hatred and death in the name of religion and nation.

The film borrows from and contributes to the already existent stardom of Salman Khan as Hindu-Muslim. In the film, the people in Pakistan start calling him Bajrangi bhaijaan, where Bajrangi indicates his Hindu devotional identity and bhaijaan indicates a loving and respectful acceptance of him as a brother. But the film also invokes and extends the extra-diegetic star presence of Sallu-bhai or bhai as he is lovingly called by his fans. As bhaijaan then, he is both Bajrangi and Salman, thus constantly invoking interpretations that leak between diegetic and non-diegetic borders. These expectations from the star who is lovingly called bhai by his Muslim fans then already code him as always Hindu-Muslim. His ability to transcend the limitations of religious identity are presented as a result of his inability to other either of those identities because he has both within him.

Indian Secular Stardom: Body, Masculinity, and Religion

Notably, Salman has embraced this hybrid bhaijaan identity once Bajrangi Bhaijaan was a success and mentioned it several times in his interviews as well, including his court appearance in Jodhpur. A newspaper article in Tehelka reports: “Salman answered all the questions but he got confused when asked about his caste. He gave a puzzled look to the court as well to his counsel and bodyguard and after few seconds someone from the crowd suggested he say ‘Muslim’. But he said to the court ‘Hindu and Muslim’ both. The Dabaang [sic] Khan told the court that his father is a Muslim and mother is a Hindu” (Tehelka Web Desk). Another article appeared in Times of India soon after the release of Bajrangi Bhaijaan where his Hindu-Muslimness is highlighted: “Salman Khan rejoices both Eid and Diwali with equal zest. Like the actor, even his family celebrates both the festivals with equal enthusiasm” (TNN). Salman Khan’s Hindu-Muslim secular identity then gets mapped on to his body. His screen roles (all except for Sultan) are Hindu but the hypervisible body of the star defiantly includes and serves as a reminder of his Muslim identity as well.

Given how the 1990s patriotic films had advanced hypermasculine bodies in the service of the Hindu nation, the star’s body here requires examination as well. While discussing popular films produced during the time the Hindu nationalist movement was politically ascendant in the 1990s, Madhavi Murty emphasizes “the link between religion, masculinity, and the nation” but then also differentiates between Hindu and Muslim masculinities: “while Hindu masculinity linked to duty and service to the nation—stands legitimated, Muslim masculinity – linked to Islam seen as ideology not faith—stands delegitimated” (272). Bajrangi’s masculinity in the film is also defined by his righteousness and duty to Lord Hanuman and the nation. However, the threat that his body possesses is neutralized in the film through various ways: he goes to the RSS shakha’s akhada but cannot wrestle with them because he is too ticklish—therefore childlike and not dangerous; unlike his other films, he does not appear shirtless for the most part, his muscular body is not on display and therefore not threatening; his central coupling is with Chand Nawab, another male; and, his star-image as Hindu-Muslim undercuts any Hindutva associations with his body.

The celibate virile masculinity that legitimates the nationalist movement remains adamantly heterosexual. In contrast, Pawan’s relationship with another male (let alone a Muslim and a Pakistani) queers his masculinity especially as he seems to form a family unit when, clad in a burqa, he, Nawab, and Munni pretend to be a family to escape the border police. His celibacy in the film until that point then displaces Lajjo as his romantic interest in favor of Chand Nawab. Moreover, the character’s celibacy—and the belief in Salman Khan’s celibacy by his fans who also choose not to get involved with other women but instead form intense relationships with other men and fans of the star—makes him non-heteronormative and in stark opposition to the straight aggressive Hindu masculinity of the 1990s films. The documentary, Being Bhaijaan, makes obvious the latent homoerotic desire that constructs his huge, mostly male, fandom. The film caters to those pleasures as the viewer and the fan identifies with Nawab/Nawazuddin who loves Pawan/Salman, pursues him, and is allowed to talk to him as if he is his wife. Indeed, another newspaper article from Uttar Pradesh uses stills from the film and runs the headline, “OMG, Salman is Film mein Bane Hain Nawazuddin ki Begum”/“OMG, Salman Plays Nawazuddin’s Wife in this Film” (Kumari).

While Salman Khan’s body remains clothed in the film, its presence is still overdetermined by his startext as Hindu-Muslim. However, it gains prominence in his next big film, Sultan, where he plays the role of a Muslim wrestler who represents India and becomes a world champion. The film then emphasizes the virile Muslim body and his coding as bhaijaan results in fans and media calling him Sultan bhaijaan. His muscular body, which is front and center in all the posters, inserts a Muslim or at least an adulterated Hindu-Muslim body into the national imaginary. Given how central his body is to his star image, it is a constant extra-diegetic reminder of the star. The presence of his body constantly breaks down the barrier between performer and character, where the performer is legible to the viewers as the star, whose associated meanings impact interpretation. The secular Hindu-Muslimness of Salman Khan complicate any clear right-wing associations with him through the presence of his body.


I want to conclude by going back to Bajrangi Bhaijaan as the film coalesces the dominant aspects of his contemporary stardom as connected with religion and the nation. Just like Owaisi’s diatribe against Salman when he seems too Hindu, the Hindutva sentiments against him had found expression in burning of his effigy and even a writ submitted to Allahabad high court. The film, it was argued, hurt Hindu sentiments. They expressed disapproval of the kind of dance that was performed around Hanuman ji in the “Selfie song” and, more importantly, asked for the name of the film to be changed because “Bhaijaan” was considered distasteful and an insult to Bajrang bali. To these accusations, Salman Khan responded by using the metaphor of the home for the nation: “hamare ghar mein ek hi chhat ke neeche rahte hain sabhi dharm ke log/in our home, people from all religions live under the same roof” (Sharma). While he has made the appeal to being human multiple times before, here he includes the insertion of the Muslim into the family/nation by saying we all live under roof, a family where Bajrangi should be called bhaijaan.

I have argued in this paper that Salman Khan’s stardom has acquired a religious identity that is based in crossing communal borders. While his stardom remains deeply complex because of his notoriety and all the controversies that surround him, this particular evocation positions the meanings surrounding his films and his presence with the potential to interrupt Islamophobia that is rooted in the fundamentalist conception of a Hindu state even as it profits off of it. The public discourse surrounding him and his films critiques extremist ideologies at the heart of patriotism and Hinduism. What is perhaps the most important factor about this critique of Islamophobia at the local and national level is that it also provides an alternative to western ideals of secularism, which can run the risk of secular fundamentalism that recreates Islamophobia. Both Kabir Khan and Salman Khan call this vision secular but it is based in acceptance and love of a certain version of religion instead of in its denial. While western secular fundamentalism feeds global Islamophobia, the stardom of Hindu-Muslim Salman Bhaijaan offers an alternative to it.