The bad boy SRK of Darr and Baazigar fascinated us. Lover boy Raj/Rahul enthralled us. Don disarmed us with his charm. The NASA scientist in Swades touched us. The Muslim who is also ‘The Bhai’, however, raises nationalistic hackles.

Main dharam ka dhanda nahin karta.” Unlike other punch lines in Raees, this dialogue comes only once, as if the makers of the film are challenging you to remember the almost throwaway words in the context of a loaded controversy, set off in many quarters. I can’t recall any other film in recent memory generating so much speculation and theorising by all and sundry… TV anchors, journalists who don’t write on cinema, academics and political columnists. The central question here is this: is Shah Rukh Khan underlining/reasserting/ proclaiming his Muslim identity with extra emphasis? Is Raees the culmination of three films — made by directors of different sensibilities and on totally different themes — where he plays a Muslim? Is this mere coincidence or by design? Is there a hidden political agenda? The direct questions alternate with innuendos, heating up the poisoned atmosphere in our country, where everything is measured in terms of loudly proclaimed nationalism, and any dissent is equated with being anti-national. Intolerance is a word that acts like a red rag to raging nationalistic bulls — and Shah Rukh Khan was persuaded and prodded into uttering the provocative word on TV, letting loose not only the rabid Hindutva brigade but also the so-called rational apologists of RSS ideology, in the name of cultural nationalism. The irony is tragically funny. Across the border, Pakistani Censors want to ban Raees for portraying Muslims in a bad light.

The eponymous anti-hero proclaims that koi dhanda chota nahin hota and pursues the dhanda with a baniye ka dimaag and miyanbhai ki daring. Elsewhere, he justifies his unlawful trade: “Gujarat ki hawa mein vyapaar hai, sahib. Aap meri saans ko to rok lo, lekin is hawa ko kaise rokoge?” His matter of fact reiteration of Gujarat’s entrepreneurial spirit salutes the environment he is born in — the baniya’s territory — and marries it to the Muslim’s derring do. It ought to be the ultimate answer, but has set the cat among the pigeons — both secular and congenitally communal. SRK’s reiteration of his Muslim identity, plus the way he uses the evocative phrase Inshallah without apology and unmatched panache, seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable for no valid reason — except congenital distrust of the Muslim. It goes without saying that invoking Ram and the Bhagvad Gita by rabble-rousers and respected commentators causes no ripples in a society that accepts majoritarianism as the norm — and such double standards do fill a lot of us with disquiet, if not alarm.

If this is beginning to read like political ranting and not a critique of Raees, so be it. The debate needs a context that goes all the way back to pre-Independence days, when Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari and Madhubala had to mask their Muslim identity under Hindu names. We collectively rejoiced that the Khan triumvirate ruled Bollywood from the ‘90s onwards without recourse to Hindu camouflage. We felt our secularism was mature, despite the fact that a major mainstream film with a Muslim setting and a Muslim hero has been rare in the recent past — Fiza, Fanaa and Kurban are exceptions, and all of them took head on radicalised jihadists as protagonists.

Khalid Mohamad’s Fiza is the most probing, sensitive film of them all, tracing the radicalization to the 1992 Bombay riots. The focus is much more on the women — the grieving mother and determined sister — left to cope alone, after the young son goes missing. Fanaa and Kurban made a mishmash of betrayed women married to motiveless jihadists, and came up with efforts that were neither thrillers nor noir love stories. It was almost as if radicalising Islam was the flavour to flirt with, for a couple of years.

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It was a change from the tired reprisals of nawabi “Muslim Socials” of the 1950s and ‘60s, cocooned in courtly courtesies, veiled beauties, misunderstood tawaifs and Urdu shairi. Parallel cinema gave us landmarks like Garm Hava, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and the quietly reflective Naseem from Saeed Mirza, the prolific angry young man of art cinema. Poised between mainstream and parallel was Bazaar, ripping the hypocrisy off the shabby, genteel bride trade in Hyderabad.

Otherwise, the usual staples were the avuncular Khan chacha, the smuggler, a doting nanny or the jovial family friend spouting shoddy shairi, to lend a secular touch to the Barjatya family sagas, dripping with saccharine Hindu virtues and hallowed values. If there were Muslim policemen in the script, they had to prove their loyalty beyond the call of duty, much more than their Hindu colleagues: examples are as far apart as Naseeruddin Shah in Droh Kaal and Mukesh Rishi in Sarfarosh.

Then came the two SRK starrers that broke the mould. Chak De! India is our archetypal sports film, craftily melding unknown girls from all corners of India into a winning team under a disgraced coach on the road to redemption. The fictional final between rivals India and Pakistan hounded the Indian captain Kabir Khan into lonely obscurity, for missing a penalty stroke, and thus accused of throwing the match. The real life parallel of a similarly humiliated Mir Ranjan Negi was deliberately recast as the Muslim Kabir Khan, to heighten the hostility and doubting his loyalty as something credible. It was the collective wisdom of the director and writer to make Chak De! India even more impactful by redeeming the unjustly accused victim of collective prejudice. The success of the film can be read both ways: as pandering to the populist hostility of the Hindu majority, or as expiation of the same sin of doubting a Muslim’s loyalty. It is as if India invented its own version of the British Tebbit test in cricket.

“My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist” was a brave proclamation, not only to fellow doubting Indians but to the Islamophobic world at large, and America in particular. I found what I wrote years ago and am quoting it again. “Rizwan Khan is the most persuasive exponent for the true Islamist cause in popular cinema of the entire subcontinent. He not only commands our understanding but becomes an accidental hero destined for fame, simply because of his sheer goodness and determination. Overlook the excess sentimental baggage and exaggerated climax that stretches credibility. There is poignancy in schmaltz. Take the scene in the Georgia church, where the dead from Iraq are being mourned. Rizwan’s mostly Hindi speech about his step-son ends in a moment of recognition: his beloved Hum Honge Kamyab is the Indian version of We Shall Overcome, the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. The emotional recognition is moving and absolves the excess.” It is discovering kinship between two discriminated communities: Indian Muslims and American Blacks.

Now comes the question of Raees and its most flamboyant assertion of the hero as a populist miyanbhai, lining his eyes heavily with surma, sporting pathani suits and attitude with equal elan. SRK and Rahul Dholakia proudly wear the hitherto derogatory epithet and combine it with a baniya’s sharp dimaag in the director’s native territory, Gujarat. What Dholakia tries to do is refashion Scarface via vintage Salim-Javed scripts to Gujarat’s vitiated politics. The young, poor Raees, who can’t see the blackboard, steals Gandhiji’s specs off a statue in his innocence. It is an obvious irony that those hallowed specs have lost their transparency in the murky politics of politician-smuggler collusion, leading to an inevitable fall out, rath yatras calculated to inflame religious passions, riots and cold blooded killing of the anti-hero by the determined cop. The reference to the state’s notoriously selective encounter deaths is unmissable.

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Dholakia transfers encounter killings to a one-on-one battle between a stoically determined cop, Majmudar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui in yet another quiet, scene-stealing performance) and the hunted anti-hero. Majmudar, despite being subjected to repeated transfers when he asks for written orders to do things outside the law, is Raees’ nemesis, waiting for the time when his prey’s political patronage is withdrawn. Instead of a staged encounter killing, Raees is shot down in cold blood. You know the cop has his justification, as does Raees for his elimination of friends turned enemies. Musa, the Don who calls the shots from Bombay, is the mastermind of the bomb blasts. Dholakia is not squeamish when it comes to gore. A prolonged, violent scene in an abattoir, with carcasses hanging all over, reeks of blood lust.

The problem with Raees is Dholakia’s hold— all script, which crams in every reference he can. He takes the narrative trajectory from a smuggler getting unwittingly caught in Bombays’ bomb blasts after he has donned a secular Robin Hood avatar. A pious Muslim who flagellates himself during Muharram, Raees is a benefactor of all the people in his mohalla, many of whom are Hindus. He does not wear his secularism on his sleeve, but speaks through his actions, as an MLA who dreams of building a housing colony for all.

Why then is SRK being asked to prove his Indian credentials for playing a Muslim smuggler (based on the real life bootlegger Abdul Latif, despite the obligatory disclaimer) when other actors like Ajay Devgn have played a Haji Mastan-inspired role in Once Upon a Time in Bombay? Or Kamal Haasan in Nayakan? Do the rules change when a Muslim superstar gets under the skin of a Muslim smuggler framed as a terrorist — with the right look, manner and attitude? Does that make him a Muslim first and an Indian next? All this because he sauntered through Karan Johar’s apostrophe to unrequited love as the eminent painter Tahir Taliyar Khan (a two minute special appearance). In Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, all the characters were rich Muslim NRIs cavorting in London, Paris and Vienna with a brief sojourn in Lucknow. As for Dr. Jahangir Khan, the suave, unconventional psychiatrist in Dear Zindagi, there is no overt or covert Muslimness beyond the name. But that too is seen and read as a reassertion of religious identity, in a country that is dividing its citizens into religious ghettos.

The bad boy SRK of Darr and Baazigar fascinated us. Lover boy Raj/Rahul enthralled us. The elusive, clever Don, wanted by gyarah mulkon ke police, disarmed us with his potent charm. The NASA scientist, whose conscience drove him back to his Swades, touched us with his sincerity. But play a miyanbhai who is also “The Bhai”, and he raises nationalistic hackles. Don’t forget SRK’s memorable cameo in Hey!Ram. He remained a staunch pathan, whose commitment to Gandhian non-violence stood steadfast in riot-torn Delhi, while the hitherto secular protagonist was seduced by an RSS prachark’s infusion of threatened Hindu masculinity into assertive nationalism.

We never once questioned if Manoj Kumar essaying the tiresomely preachy Bharat in film after clichéd film, shouting out his patriotism in song and rhetoric declamation, was a Hindu first and then a nationalist. Well, he was rewarded with an undeserved Dadasaheb Phalke award by the present jingoistic dispensation. The two identities — Hindu and nationalist — are automatically synonymous in our minds. Anything else is suspect — and that is the tragedy of our country.

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