To get a real sense of how arresting it was to hear Aamir Khan’s comments at the Ramnath Goenka awards function on Monday, you need context. And the context is this: awards functions are glitzy, self-congratulatory marketing and PR-heavy events. (This one even had sponsors’ ads for jewelry and insurance running silently on screens all through chief guest Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s speech and the handing out of awards.) They are frequently tame affairs, even when the host happens to be The Indian Express, a newspaper that has produced some of the finest investigative journalism in the country. The front rows are occupied by members of the political, bureaucratic and corporate establishment, with a bit of military brass thrown in for colour. Even the journalists honoured for challenging the establishment’s narrative through their stories are co-opted, for an evening, into this clubby conviviality. Announced by comperes in fruity accents, they arrive on stages in the banquet halls of five star hotels in dressy saris, business suits and bandhgalas to receive their XXXL- size cheques from the great and the good, and pose for pictures on a stage wallpapered with the names of corporate sponsors and awash with assistants rushing to and fro in short black dresses. This is not the sort of event at which truth is spoken to power.
On Monday evening, things seemed to be going pretty much according to the usual script when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, after an effusive welcome from the chairman of the Indian Express group, Viveck Goenka, who hailed him as his “friend for nearly 30 years” and lauded him for “an integrity of intellect that respects every voice no matter where it comes from”, launched into reminiscences about the boldness of the Express’s founder Ramnath Goenka during the Emergency.
He looked relaxed in the way Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders invariably do when speaking about those distant days when the Congress Party was the scourge of civil society and the future standard-bearers of hardline Hindutva were counted among those fighting for the noble causes of liberty and free speech.
When Aamir Khan – until then ensconced between Jaitley and BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu in the front row, and chatting animatedly with the finance minister during the run-up to the awards ceremony – got up to join Viveck’s son, Anant, on stage, a friend and I decided to stay only for the start of their conversation. But as soon as Khan declared, unprompted, minutes into his arrival on stage “that these are challenging times for good journalism” we got the feeling that this tête-à-tête might be less predictable than we had expected, and waited for this hope to be realised.
At first, Goenka postponed the question that Khan seemed to want to be asked, about “these challenging times”, and dwelt instead on what a fan of the movie star he was. A picture was flashed, right on cue, of an adolescent Goenka with a younger Khan. Obeisance paid, the interviewer began to veer away from this schmaltzy territory. But rather than his questions, which were more tentative than interrogative, it was Khan's even-toned yet bold responses that changed the mood and feel of the event.
The first round of determined clapping from the back of the house, where much of the journalistic hoi-polloi was assembled, was heard when he supported the right of creative people to protest by returning awards. The second round erupted when, in response to Goenka asking whether the protests were “called for or premature”, Khan endorsed the protesters’ concerns. He made clear his own “alarm” at a “number of incidents” in the country, and his view that elected representatives and leaders needed to stand up and say the right thing. This was in the presence, let us not forget, of a Finance Minister who had dubbed the returning of awards by writers after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri “a manufactured revolt”, a “paper rebellion” and an expression of “ideological intolerance”. Sitting in the same row were three of his cabinet colleagues – Naidu, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Rajiv Pratap Rudy.
“More (insecurity and fear) than there was earlier?” Goenka asked, clearly trying to come to grips with the turn the conversation was taking, and the response it was evoking from a section of the audience. An attentive calm descended on the hall when Aamir said, in a gently conversational manner, what has now been repeated ad nauseam, distorted and twisted on Twitter: “When I sit at home and talk to Kiran (his wife), and Kiran and I have lived all our lives in India, and for the first time Kiran says, should we move out of India, that is a disastrous and a very big statement for Kiran to make to me. She fears for her child, she feels scared to open the newspapers every day.” The claps began again when he concluded, “That does indicate there is a sense of growing disquiet. One part of it is alarm, the other part is you feel depressed, you feel low, you feel ‘why is this happening?’”
Khan comes late to the intolerance debate. Should he have advanced it, by talking not just about disquiet and alarm but also speaking, more than he did on Monday, about what writers, film stars, citizens should do, going forward, in the current climate? In making public his private talk with his wife, he communicated something heartening: that while being celebrities, they are not immune from the fears and insecurities of ordinary Indians. However, while telling us what his wife asked, about whether they should leave the country, he should perhaps have also told us what he said in reply. That was certainly a question begging to be asked of him. But there will always be quibbles. What lingers in the mind is not what Aamir Khan did not say but what he did, unawed by the presence of senior members of the government watching him from the best seats in the house. One can only hopes he retains that poise and calm as a wholly unmerited campaign of vilification erupts around him.