‘When two persons are in love, nothing stands in the way’

October 26, 2015

Screen idol and heartthrob of millions, Aamir Khan has been married to Reena for a dozen years. Theirs is a Hindu–Muslim marriage that thrives on cultural diversity within which the issue of religious differences has never posed any problem. 
In an exclusive interview with the editors of Communalism Combat on the occasion of its fifth anniversary, Aamir spoke at length this aspect of their relationship and gave a message for young couples contemplating such a relationship today: Go right ahead and make a life together!

When you and Reena got involved and decided to get married, was the fact that the two of you belonged to different reli-gious persuasions ever a consideration, for either of you? 

No, to neither Reena nor I. For neither of us was religion ever an issue in our relationship.

Was this because neither of you was particularly religiously minded?
That could be one of the reasons. But I don’t think that it is the reason. Neither of us feel — I can speak for myself actually!  I don’t think I have ever felt that I could not form a relationship with a member of another religious community,  whether it is marriage or friendship or a professional relationship. 

I never felt that because a person is from a different community or follows a different religion, I would never be able to associate with that person. It never even occurred to me. 

How did you and your wife, Reena meet?
We met because we live in the same locality, Pali Hill at Bandra.

And how did you marry?
We had a civil marriage. 

Was that a conscious choice and how did your parents react?
Well, I don’t know about it being a conscious choice because these things come naturally, the choices that one makes. I don’t think there was ever a question that we would have gone in for a marriage through either Islamic or Hindu religious rites simply because one of us is Hindu and the other, a Muslim. But I am saying this all in retrospect, because we are discussing it. It was not something that we discussed between us at all. It was a natural choice.

Neither side, neither Reena’s family nor mine were present at the marriage because they did not know we were getting married (laughs). So there was no question of either of them reacting adversely to a civil ceremony.

Would you say that your attitude towards each other was dictated by your upbringing, with the attitudes and values inculcated in you, through childhood, by your parents?
I think so. I think it’s largely due to the way both Reena and my parents brought us up. Whatever a person ultimately is, does, I think gets determined by the influences on him or her during the growing years. And one of the strong influences on any one of us is our parents. I feel I am a very secular person and a large credit for that must go to my parents.

What community do they come from?
They are both Muslims.

Did you encounter the same kind of openness from your wife, Reena’s parents?
Reena herself felt very much like me. And I don’t think religion was an issue for her parents either.

What about the extended families on either side?
Well, no one, until now, has come up to me and said that they are unhappy with the fact that I married somebody belonging to a different religion. 

I am sure that there are some people who feel that way. But I feel equally sure that they are in the minority. And, I am also quite sure that I am not bothered about what they feel. (Laughs).

The atmosphere of the last few years has been vitiated with  communal conflict. Only a few days ago, Hindus who might be contemplating marriage with Muslims in Gujarat have been offered a “free consultancy service” by the Bajrang Dal to check out whether the male or female Muslim partner  is interested in the relationship for the extraneous motive of conversion, or love.  Do such developments concern the two of you and figure in your conversations?
Well, both Reena and I like to have other, like–minded people around us.  Since we are secular, we like to have secular–minded persons around us. Discussions about issues and developments that bother us take place not just between Reena and me. I discuss these issues with lots of other people, too. Obviously such  disturbs us and we discuss them in some depth.

How have the two of you, in your personal lives, responded to the cultural aspects of a mixed marriage quite apart from the religious — food habits, celebration of festivals etc?
I don’t know how much difference there is between us at that level, actually. Having lived in Bombay and spent so much time with my friends who are from different communities, I have not really felt any such difference. Reena and I have been living together for the past twelve years but I have not felt any such reflections of such cultural difference.

Not even the something as  mundane but vital to everyday living as different food habits maybe?
Reena’s style of cooking is very different from my mother’s. You see, Reena is a Punjabi. while my mother is from Uttar Pradesh, which, while being in the north, has a style of cooking that is distinct from Punjab.  But I quite like Reena’s cooking, actually! (Smiles).
Certainly there’s a difference between the food I eat every day but I enjoy it! Maybe in my case I’ve not felt this so strongly because I’m still living in the same building as my parents. So, half the time I’m eating my mother’s food and half the time I’m eating Reena’s food.

Besides, my cousin, Mansoor, also lives next door. I’ve grown up spending half my life at Mansoor’s house where there is a very UP–style of cooking. Even today, I’m either at Mansoor’s house or my mother’s house or my own house. We all spend a lot of time together in each other’s homes, sharing the food from each of our three kitchens!

So, no problems?
Well, when two persons involved in a relationship hail from varying cultural backgrounds, things do change for them both.  I think that interesting. That’s fun. Its not something that disturbs me or causes me displeasure. I think its exciting to interact with people with different backgrounds and cultures.

‘When and if my son Junaid is asked the question, which religion do you belong to, I’d like to teach him to reply — the human race’. 

When you start living together with a person, you start to learn more about that person’s culture and background. And you imbibe some of it and the other person also imbibes some of the things that you have grown up with. That I think is a very positive thing, really, about such relationships.
I must also mention that we both come from very cosmopolitan backgrounds — neither Reena nor I hail from “Hindu” or “Muslim” ghettos respectively. We both hail from very similar cosmopolitan backgrounds within Bombay. Reena, until we got married (she was 19 at the time) had spent half her life abroad and the rest in Bombay. 

Maybe, if either or both of us were from more conservative areas with tradition–bound backgrounds, some of the other problems that normally arise may have come up. 

How are festivals shared and celebrated by you both?
Celebration of festivals is one thing that has not changed for me at all after marriage.  Even before I got married to Reena, we used to celebrate almost all festivals in our home. I have two sisters and both of them have been tying a rakhee to both my brother and me since we were kids. So Raksha Bandhan is a festival that we have been celebrating forever so long. This has nothing to do with religion but more with our culture. 

Similarly Holi and Diwali are two other festivals that we have always been celebrating. And at Christmas, too, we have always sung carols and celebrated. We may not have gone to church or the mandir but we certainly celebrated all the festivals. 
Curiously enough, today, our family has members from from different communities. Mansoor, my cousin is married to a Christian. And Reena is a Hindu. So the only difference is that our manner of celebrating Holi or Diwali or Christmas now — because of Reena and Mansoor’s wife being in the family — is slightly more ‘proper’, more intimate. Eid has always been celebrated by all of us, of course. 

What about the upbringing of your children?
​Junaid, our son who is five–years–old (Ira, my daughter is only two months old) has been encouraged by both Reena and myself to learn about all the religions — pre–dominantly Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. So we answer all his questions regarding all three religions as fairly and honestly as we can. 

My mother teaches him all about Islam as any grandmother would  and Reena’s mother, his maternal grandmother teaches him about Hinduism as any grandmother would. He is getting to learn about all these and Christianity through his chaachi (aunt). We are consciously encouraging him to learn about different religions, really.

‘Let religion never be an issue between you. Let it never come in the way. If you are in love with someone from another community and the feeling is reciprocated, what more do you want? Go right ahead and make a life together’.

While filling a form at school where you are required to identify your child’s religion, what do you write? Some mixed couples write ‘humanism’, or ‘yet to be decided’. What about you both?
(Perplexed). I honestly don’t know what we’ve filled! Does every school have this on the form?  Are you sure? I don’t think we have come across this yet. But I think we will also follow the “humanism’ option that you mentioned in the case of Junaid and Ira. That’s a good idea.

How did you choose the names of the children and what about things like religious initiation ceremonies?
One of our children, our son, Junaid, has an Islamic name, and our daughter, Ira has got a Sanskrit name. But this was not a conscious decision. In fact, after our son was born we were torn between two names, Vivan and Junaid. Vivan is a Sanskrit name while Junaid, happens to be an Arabic name. The only reason we opted for Junaid was because Naseeruddin Shah’s son was already named Vivan. And Reena, for that reason alone, pitched for Junaid. Junaid means spear-carrier and Vivan means way of life. Ira is another name for Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge.

​Junaid happens to be circumcised but this was a decision taken for health reasons, not religious. 

Do you anticipate any other issues emerging out of the different religious traditions arising during the upbringing of your children in the future?
We have not discussed any of this in any detail. I think we should just let it all flow naturally. We’re not keeping the children away from any religion. And, finally, we believe it’s the decision of the kids, what they want to do as they grow up in life. Nor are we burdening them with any responsibility (of thinking about all of this) at such a young age. There will be time enough for them to think about it later on.

Some children of mixed marriages experience awkwardness when outsiders probe their religious identity, others thrive on the experience of having dual influences?
So far, this has not happened. That is maybe because Junaid is too young and has not experienced any such situation yet. But if and when he does, I shall sit and explain everything to him, what our beliefs are etc. etc. 

When and if my son Junaid is asked the question, which religion do you belong to, I’d like to teach him to reply, “the human race”. And which region? Maharashtra, Therefore he is a Maharashtrian. And which nationality? Indian.

That’s it. As far as religion is concerned, we will not teach him to identify himself with any one religion. And we will definitely do our best to ensure that he is not embarrassed about his identity and also make him realise that as we see it, we do not look at Hindus or Muslims as two separate groups. So he shouldn’t either. I think that’s the message we’d like to give Junaid.

Being part of Indian reality, a large number of your fans must be conservative and tradition–bound.  But their icons — Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Mohammad Azharuddin, Vinod Kambli — have made unconventional life choices. How do you feel that they reconcile this contradiction between their tradition–bound lives and the life choices of their icons?

See, I am quite sure that even among the most avid moviegoers and movie–watchers, there are many who are rabid, who are fundamentalist. I am equally sure that they do not approve of certain things that  we do. But then, I do not live for them. I am the way I am.  If people like my work and therefore they like me, they should accept me as I am.   

What is really quite amazing for me is that coincidental as it is, at a time when fundamentalism has been at the fore politically, three of India’s leading stars are Khans — Shahrukh, Salman and myself!

I think what it indicates really is that the common man is not deeply affected by this virus of intolerance as yet. Or else, it would be inconceivable that Shahrukh and I could be as popular as we are.

Are marriages across religious, regional or caste backgrounds common in your circle of friends and acquaintances,?
Quite a few of them actually. I think this phenomenon is increasing in number. People are getting less finicky about this.

What is the message that you would like to give to individuals who may be contemplating such relationships in today’s more communally polarised times?
Well the message I would like to give such couples is this: Let religion never be an issue between you. Let it never come in the way. If you are in love with someone from another community and the feeling is reciprocated, what more do you want? Go right ahead and make a life together. 

Two human beings should learn to understand and respect each other’s personal beliefs whether it is in the area of religious beliefs, or moral beliefs or political ones. These need not come in the way of a relationship.

What is really quite amazing for me is that coincidental as it is, at a time when fundamentalism has been at the fore politically, three of India’s leading stars are Khans — Shahrukh, Salman and myself!

Does it bother you that over the past 10–15 years or so, unlike the situation when you and Reena opted to get married, the issue of religious identity is being imposed on people, forcibly. Does it bother you that your children may not be so unselfconscious about their choice of life partner?
Somehow I have a feeling, that despite the attempts of fundamentalist parties to polarise communities — and to a certain extent they have succeeded in this polarisation – when it comes to love, that polarisation doesn’t work, somehow. That’s what my experience is.

Besides, for economic reasons different communities also have to inter–mingle. So I don’t know whether we need to worry too much about these crude attempts. I do know that after the Bombay riots, people left their localities, but I think that was a knee–jerk reaction. I don’t think that in the long term that effect lingers in society, except with the individuals who have suffered. Unless of course things get very bad, escalate and get much worse.

So I believe that instances of mixed marriages will only increase. When you fall in love with another person, all these things, all other considerations fall aside. Any poison that you may have in your mind gets washed away when you are in love because love is a very strong feeling. Nothing stands in the way.

But some of the recent developments in Gujarat, for example, are quite disturbing.
Maybe I tend to look at the brighter side of things. I really feel that if Reena and I are an example to go by, in the twelve years of our marriage we’ve never ever had religion coming up as an issue. Even in the slightest, remotest way.  We may have fought, about how to decorate the flat and various other things but religion is one thing that has never come has never come between us.

Does your personal experience make it difficult to comprehend the growth of fanaticism in the society around us?
We’ve had these kinds of discussions a number of times especially during the riots. It really made the two of us feel sad and we wondered, how could this happen? It also made us, individually, embarrassed about our respective religious communities. Or at least embarrassed about those sections of our communities that were indulging in that kind of advocacy and action.