A Brief History of ‘Khan,’ the Name That Rules Bollywood and Stalls Airport Security Lines

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

Bollywood’s three biggest stars are all Khans, though they are not related. Together, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Aamir Khan rule even mundane aspects of Indian life. Shah Rukh is said to endorse more goods than any other Indian, dead or alive. His face is everywhere, looming over roads and in the pages of magazines, hawking the stuff that makes a life — from the luxe (Apple toys and motorbikes) to the dull (AC units and pens). Aamir, the good guy, hosts a national talk show, avoids tabloids, and is often cited as a dream political candidate. Salman is the brute — the Crowe to Shah Rukh’s Clooney and Aamir’s Damon. He’s forever in the news for some sin that won’t hurt his box-office clout, whether it’s joking about rape, or killing a rare animal for sport. The “Khandom,” to quote director Karan Johar, is real. Nothing can take down a Bollywood Khan. Of the country’s ten top-earning movies ever, the Khan triumvirate star, separately, in eight. One of the others is narrated by a Khan: Irrfan — of Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and other blockbusters.

Excepting Salman (whose movies draw smaller audiences stateside), the above Khans have all been detained multiple times in Western airports since 9/11, long before the travel ban came to pass. So has the boxer Amir Khan, causing a notable enough Heathrow event that David Cameron stepped in (a U.S. immigration officer stopped him, en route to Vegas, on the anniversary of 9/11); the actress Zareen Khan, in JFK; acclaimed directors Sajid Khan and Kabir Khan, the latter reportedly in three different U.S. airports the same year; and Imran Khan, one of the most globally famous Pakistanis, who was forced to opine on drones. Readying for a transatlantic media trip in 2008, the television star Iqbal Khan says he turned up earlier than anyone else in his group to the embassy office, yet was the only one denied a visa because, he surmised, “my name is Mohammed Iqbal Khan.” Irrfan Khan nearly quit Hollywood after being made to sit for hours in back rooms with no explanation, in both LAX and JFK. “When I tried to ask why I was being treated this way, I was told to keep quiet,” he told a reporter, calling the experience “humiliating.” “I wasn’t allowed to use my phone. They said, ‘No, you just sit down.’ All because my name was Irrfan Khan.”

Compared to recent airport drama, these injustices pale. Families weren’t split indefinitely, no young children kept from their mothers. But Donald Trump’s travel ban didn’t come from nowhere, though the sudden sensitivity for Muslim travelers can seem to suggest it did. For years, Muslims have surrendered all power inside American airports — even those with great power outside them. Arguably, no case proves the absurdity of modern profiling more than Khan. On one side of the world, the surname signifies godlike greatness. On the other, it convicts its holder of crimes uncommitted.

In 2015, the U.S. government introduced a measure to excuse VIPs, VVIPs, and VVVIPs — to use the lingo of India, a country obsessed with hierarchy — from airport questioning. India was to enter the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program, bumping Indian elite out of security lines. The measure seems to have stalled. India is not yet listed online as an official member; and last summer, one of the VVVIPs to be protected by the pre-check system was again detained: Shah Rukh, in LAX, where he gamely caught Pokémon during the hours spent waiting. (The TSA did not respond to requests for comment on India’s Global Entry status.)

It was SRK’s fourth detainment in the U.S. (the only country to ever stop him), and was as memorable as the rest. His third detainment tracked with the 2012 global tour of My Name Is Khan, a blockbuster about a Muslim family man in America, fighting for equal treatment. The irony did not escape fans, who wondered if the airport hassle was a setup. From Khan, it produced a legendary quote, on the twisted art of profiling. Speaking at the podium at Yale University — hours late, having been detained — he quipped: “Whenever I start feeling too arrogant, I take a trip to America.” The next year, writing for the magazine Outlook, he grew serious. The name Khan — once evocative of “a strapping man riding a horse, his reckless hair flowing from beneath a turban tied firm around his head” — had warped in our new age to describe a new sort of man: “shoved into a backroom of a vast American airport named after an American president.”

The nobler sense of Khan goes back centuries. The name is derived from a title, adapted from the Turkish word for “king.” Demand for it spread, through mountain tribes, into Central Asia (thanks Genghis), morphing as it went. In China, it became Xan, and was handed out by Ming-dynasty emperors. Hindu courtiers of 16th-century India could become Khans, if Emperor Akbar took a liking to them. There are Hindu Khans, and Buddhist Khans, though it is largely a Muslim surname. Nowadays, it’s one of the most common last names in the world: As of 2014, more doctors in the U.K. were named Khan than anything else.

In Bollywood, thanks to the successes of its bearers, the name retains that first, regal, sheen. Some years ago, the renowned Harvard professor Shahab Ahmed spoke to a reporter hoping to crack why India’s biggest movie stars were Khans. Ahmed was the authority on the matter, at work on a book on the history of Khans in Bollywood. He died before its completion, and his insights paint a half-formed picture of how the name came to the screen: via a tribe of Pashtun warriors — Khans — who left Afghanistan for India, and young Bollywood. These early Khans were skilled, but not, to use Ahmed’s word, “influential.” It was an Afghan Khan who wrote the first-ever Bollywood song, for example, for the industry’s first talkie. By the 1950s, at least two Khans were stars — Madhubala and Dilip Kumar — though they’d adopted faux Hindu names. (India holds as confused a relationship with Muslims as any nation.)

Khandom theories exist. Most are conspiracies, about a Muslim underworld controlling Bollywood; some credit the Khans’s Afghan blood for the fair skin that seduces Indian audiences. Perhaps the simplest answer is best, though. Salman and Aamir each claim parents in the industry. Their ancestors were those early Khans, working in the dark, so their descendants could stand in the spotlight. (As for Shah Rukh, son of an activist and homemaker, he’s keeping the Khan mystery alive.)*

Any travelling Muslim today might view faith as a malleable force, to be downplayed or celebrated with care, depending on context. It’s therefore a boon, in a sense, when VVVIPs are held to the same standards. A person used to special treatment calls out injustices others swallow. What separates a Bollywood Khan from the rest, after all, is he still sees himself as a hero.

*An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Shah Rukh Khan had parents in the industry. In fact, he made it to Bollywood all on his own.

Khan: The Name That Rules Bollywood, Stalls Airport Security