Guest post by CHARU GUPTA
Fawad Khan, a Pakistani Muslim male, has become an endearing and enduring metaphor, a fascinating icon, the new heartthrob and fantasy of Indian girls and women. Zindagi, an Indian entertainment television channel, launched just four months ago, which telecasts cross-border serials from Pakistan, has captured our imagination. The central idiom of the channel has proven to be Fawad Khan, who besides having looks to die for and undeniable charm, portrays a sensitive, emotional and mature lover and husband in top of the charts serials Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Humsafar. He has entered Bollywood through the film Khubsoorat. Fan mails from women have poured over websites. One of them says: ‘You have to be living under a rock if you have not heard of Fawad Khan yet…. Did your mother just tell you she has a crush on Fawad Khan? Your female colleagues are probably head-over-heels in love with him too…. Women maybe have more photos of Fawad Khan in their phones than their own.’ Describing the film Khubsoorat, Shobha De articulates: ‘So, who is the real “khubsoorat” in the movie….Any guesses? You’ve got it! It’s a slim, bearded bloke from across the border…. He’s as yummy as those irresistible Lahori kebabs, and desi ladies want him.’
Fawad Khan’s religious and national identity is not hidden or muted; it is explicit and out there. But Indian women, most of them Hindu, are totally disinterested or unconcerned with the fact. While the ‘love jihad’ hysterics are crying themselves hoarse, Indian girls are not giving a damn whether Fawad Khan is a Muslim or a Pakistani. Instead, they are dreaming of having someone like him in their lives to romance and to love, who can make them feel so very special. This swooning over Fawad Khan by Indian girls and women of all ages reveals a religious and national liminality that can stump the hysteria over the constructed bogey of love jihad. The representation of Fawad Khan and the construction of love jihad, both in very different ways are part of fictive imaginations, myths and rhetoric, spectacles and obsessions. At the same time, they undercut each other, reflecting women’s desires on the one hand and Hindu male fears on the other. Love for Fawad Khan personifies allegories of intimacy and romance, while the love jihad campaign embodies hatred and anxieties. One contests power, the other attempts to reinstate it. It is these disjunctive representations that make their juxtaposition stimulating.
The love jihad campaign exposes how Hindu women are central symbols of the Hindutva body politic. Hindutva’s cry for segregation expresses a geography that maps power and hierarchy through bodies, by denying free movement to Hindu women. It uses threats of physical, emotional and religious harm to women’s bodies as powerful weapons of social control. In convoluted ways women are thus told that inter-religious marriages are undesirable for the good of women themselves. Hindu women who indulge in any way in inter-religious romances or marriages are depicted as ‘foolhardy’, as a menace for Hindutva, and as a danger to constructs of Hindu nation. They are the mediums through which threats of inter-religious marriages are enacted. But their love for Fawad Khan is one of the many vehicles by which such constructed ‘dangers’ are displaced. Through their dreams of, and desires for him, women discursively bridge the conventional physical and psychological distance between Hindu/Muslim, Indian/Pakistani. These women signify a religious and sexual mobility which defies any tantrums of the Hindutva brigade. In their own ways, such women are not only refusing their ‘proper’ sexual and religious roles; they are completely nonchalant and apathetic to the delusional constructions of the ‘evil’ Muslim male. Their love for Fawad Khan is not just guided by exoticism or escapism but also by romantic desires, which is indifferent to pressures of conforming to community and family expectations. The Hindu woman implicitly places herself here between two worlds, deftly dealing with them and giving a damn about the shouts of ‘love jihad’. It is her ambiguous and ephemeral existence, and her ‘instability’ as a defined religious and national being that is threatening, causing increasing insecurities among the Hindutva forces. In spite of all threats and campaigns against inter-religious and inter-caste love, such couplings have continued to increase in number in India. As Nivedita Menon says, young men and women are falling in love, across caste and religious divides, and this is rocking the foundations of caste and religious identity. Moreover, as Janaki Nair states, ‘Indian women have taken control of their lives at a much faster pace than expected’ and they are ‘no longer passive bearers of caste, religious, ethnic or other meaning – but the makers of meaning’, resulting in further angst among Indian men.
The phenomenon and representative lens of Fawad Khan highlights additional dimensions. His imagery pitches the sensitive Muslim against the ‘monstrous’ Muslim, constructed by the menace of love jihad campaign. Khan as a Muslim male idol defies stereotypes of Muslim men or any negative-positive binaries. His allure not only undermines or marginalises the hysteria against the ‘evil’, ‘violent’ Muslim; his portrayal as a hero, as a male icon and a perfect husband material resists the myth of the Muslim as the rapist. The uncontrollable Muslim male ravishing the pure body of the Hindu woman, which has marked the trajectory of the love jihad campaign, is replaced here with a perceptive, almost vulnerable, Muslim male, loving and romancing the woman. These contrasts between the romantic and the pathological, the hero and the villain, the icon and the devil, the defender and the predator bring out the paradoxes of our society. While discourses of religious ‘othering’ and hatred have persisted and gained a new lease of life with the ascent of the Hindu Right in Indian politics, our love for Fawad Khan is one of the instances which also shows that the divisions have become muddier and more fluid, as a section of Indian women are discarding binary categories and fixed identities.
The icon of Fawad Khan has caused deep insecurities among a brand of Hindu men. It is another reminder of the precariousness of Hindutva designations. The anxieties of Hindu Right and a section of Hindu men have coalesced around threatened religious collectivities as well as intimate matters of family and the individual. A threatened Hindu masculinity laments through some of the tweets, which read as follows: ‘How can Indian, particularly Hindu women, prefer Fawad Khan to us?…. Indian girls seem to be the most foolish on earth…. Are Indian and Hindu guys dead that they have to ogle at this Paki!…. India has more handsome guys than this so called hunk…. Our Bollywood actors are far better than these Paki Muslims with fair complexion…. It is because of people like him that love jihad is getting encouragement’. It is deeply discomforting for some Hindu men to share charismatic male spaces with Muslim men, and that too one from Pakistan, making Fawad Khan’s charisma all the more threatening. While love jihad campaign screams that no Hindu woman would willingly marry, have sex with or fall in love with a Muslim man, our love for Fawad Khan and the increasing inter-religious marriages suggests that dominant investments of Hindutva in asserting the primacy of Hindu men and the mastery of Hindu masculinity is under threat from within. The juxtaposition of the phenomenon of Fawad Khan with the ‘love jihad’ campaign inadvertently announces through its ambivalent convergences and divergences between religion and gender that the insisted upon superiority of Hindu men is itself the most elaborate ruse, the masquerade that keeps passing itself off as truth.
The construct of Fawad Khan also challenges certain other kinds of masculine tropes. His imagery is far removed from an overtly muscular masculine hero, who shows his biceps, 6, 8 and 10 packs, and bare chest as markers of manhood. In contrast, says De, ‘Fawad comes to us nicely packaged (compact chap, no abs, no biceps), and unambiguously adult’. He is sensual and exciting also because he does not need to take his shirt off or rely on an overtly masculinised body. It can also be argued that the leading Bollywood stars – the three Khans – are also Muslims. However, Fawad Khan is identifiably Muslim and Pakistani, and his self is not contained within a Hindu paradigm or world. As states Daniel Gold, the three Khans of Bollywood are often integrated much more comfortably in the imaginations of Indian filmgoers as they not only mostly play romantic Hindu characters on screen, but also assert a marked Indian identity in different ways.
Complexities of gender, religion and nation are brought forth in this implicit battle between rabble rousing jihad against love and our love for Fawad Khan. A politics that imposes sexual prescriptions and designates which partners are appropriate and legitimate, is no longer tenable. Certain aspects of popular culture, our everyday practices and above all love have yet again dismantled the wild allegations of love jihad campaign. Such markers and spaces need to be taken seriously for what they tell us about Indian women and about our society. The dynamics of heterogeneities are knocking on our doors, whereby processes of exclusion, and by implication inclusion, which define homogeneous identities, have developed many cracks and fissures. The links between sex and segregation, between control of women and Hindu supremacy are being subverted in our everyday lives and actions by many women themselves. Menon puts it succinctly: ‘Even in these terrible times, every single day, another young woman decides to risk her very life on the strength of a glance, another young man defies death for a smile. Subversive youthful desire – it’s enough to cheer up the most jaded of middle aged anti-romantics!’ The love of Indian women for Fawad Khan, just like inter-religious marriages, symbolises religious and national boundary crossings, transgressions of sexual taboos, and flirtations with moral castigations, imperilling the Hindutva order and threatening their constructed religious and cultural ‘purities’.