Shah Rukh Khan: Face Of Indian Soft Power In Unlikely Places

Shah Rukh Khan, India’s biggest film star, defines the potential of Indian soft power in unlikely places such as Iraq where hardly anyone even understands the language of his films

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In February 2016, a young man came up to us and began talking as our group of journalists covering the war on ISIS was exploring the Iraqi city of Karbala on foot. He just smiled after none of us could understand what he was saying in Arabic and repeated Shah Rukh Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, referring to the Indian film superstar. The man’s English was as bad as our Arabic but we acknowledged his warmth with one of the few Arab words we knew—shukran (thanks).

India has been a part of popular memory in the Arab world for centuries. Bollywood, the Indian film industry, and India as an affordable healthcare destination have defined its soft power in countries such as Iraq in recent decades until growing Islamophobia began overshadowing it.

Shah Rukh Khan, India’s biggest film star, defines the potential of Indian soft power in unlikely places such as Iraq where hardly anyone even understands the language of his films. His appeal cuts across barriers and signifies how art knows no boundaries.

At a camp for Internally Displaced People outside Karbala, Rasha Saeed, 26, said Indian films were among the things that distracted her from her woes as a displaced person. Saeed told us Bollywood and Shah Rukh Khan were the only things she knew about India. ‘I watch Bollywood films,’ she said as she pointed towards a TV at her makeshift home before following us to our bus insisting how could the guests from al-Hind leave without having lunch.

Indian films were once very popular in Iraq along with Arabic and Western movies screened at Baghdad’s cinema halls in the 1960s. They also did good business as some cinemas were dedicated solely to showing Bollywood movies. That was no longer the case in 2016.

In 2012, the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) profiled Iraqi trader Adil Hamid Khalaf, 65, whose store in Baghdad stocked Bollywood VCDs and DVDs. It noted he could extol in halting Hindi he learned by watching Bollywood films the glory of 1950s Bollywood classics and that is what set Khalaf apart.

Khalaf, who charged as much as $10 for new movies while others offered knock-offs of the films for just 40 cents, Khalaf stocked Bollywood VCDs and DVDs unfazed by a decline in interest in old Indian films and fewer sales.

He relayed anecdotes to AFP from his latest meeting with Indian film superstar Amitabh Bachchan referring to him as a good friend while recalling what he thought was a better era for Bollywood and Iraq.

Khalaf described six-foot, two-inch actor Bachchan as lambu (tall in Hindi) at his shop across the walls of his shop in Baghdad’s Najah cinema complex plastered with blown-up photographs of meetings at the actor’s Mumbai home.

AFP said Khalaf showed off a Rado watch he said Bachchan gifted him before pulling out a fading photograph of him standing with the actor and his son Abhishek, who is also now a film star.

Khalaf told AFP he first met Bachchan in 1978 after convincing someone working for another actor to take him there. AFP said Khalaf visits Bachchan as often as he can and speaks to him in Hindi.

Khalaf, whose shop was also adorned with photos of other top Bollywood stars Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty, and Amrish Puri, lamented the Indian cinema had suffered by becoming too Westernized.

He told AFP that old Indian movies taught him how to behave with others, manners, build character, be good to parents, to touch the feet of their mothers and fathers.

Khalaf lamented that Indian movies were now filled with action, drugs, knives, pistols, and bullets and were teaching people to kill, and not to behave well.

Khalaf began selling cassettes of movie songs with his friends after enjoying Indian films at Baghdad’s cinema halls in the 1960s. He branched out on his own in 1978 setting up his shop named Wassan after one of his daughters whose picture pasted on his shop wall also featured her standing with Bachchan.

The easy availability of Indian films on the internet thanks to increasing digitisation has helped a new generation of Iraqis discover Bollywood films even as they are not screened in cinemas.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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