Is it the Pakistani chaiwala’s looks or the photographer’s lens?

Khan's movement into the limelight was an unprecedented social transgression.

Written by Radhika Iyengar | Published:November 2, 2016 2:47 pm
pak-chaiwala-759 Khan was catapulted onto the social media map because people were dumbfounded that a man belonging to a certain economic background could be attractive.

As a people, we have rarely considered those who lie at the peripheries of society to hold some degree of importance in our lives. Mainstream media too, rarely pans its lens in their direction. However, once in a blue moon, things change. While India dismissed Fawad Khan, almost simultaneously social media went berserk over the Pakistani chaiwalla, Arshad Khan.

At a deeper level, this stands to underscore an issue far murkier. We tend to ascribe to a mindset which states that those who inhabit a particular class — lower class, particularly– cannot be physically appealing. Khan was catapulted onto the social media map because people were dumbfounded that a man belonging to a certain economic background could be attractive. Khan’s movement into the limelight was an unprecedented social transgression. Social mobility is something that universally, we as human beings refuse to accept or allow. However, those who have been able to transcend those boundaries, have been hurrahed. During the 2014 elections in India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used his background of “humble beginnings” to his benefit.

As a whole, society possesses a shallow, superficial mindset that the media unabashedly panders to. Over the last few weeks, a man like Khan has been reduced to his physical attributes. Many have labeled this as ‘reverse sexism’. In truth, irrespective of one’s gender, the media continues to adhere and promote a certain definition of good looks, leaving those who aren’t “fair” or “blue-eyed” or “tall” (the list is infinite) outside the pale. The pertinent question is then: would a chaiwalla of dark complexion have received attention in equal measure? Khan’s is the first story so far that has brewed conversations on social media. I’ll let you make the inference.

This of course, isn’t the first time that those who’ve remained at the margins of society, been culled from their social milieu and propped up for the spotlight. It was Marilyn Monroe who was spotted working tirelessly at a factory by a photographer; it was he who told her she had a future in front of the camera. There are homegrown examples as well. Johnny Walker was a bus conductor who spent his time entertaining the passengers by doing comic sketches. He was spotted by Balraj Sahni, who later introduced him to Guru Dutt.

Would Khan’s story play out similarly? We’ll have to wait and watch. However, the point to mull over is this — the photograph that created an uproar over social media was a single photograph. Arguably, the subsequent photographs that were shared fell far from being as impressive as the first. What was it about Khan’s first photograph that was captivating? Was it the way the photograph was taken, the angle, the light, the mood, a particular filter maybe? Should we then applaud the person who made the photograph and not the subject? Do we give Khan’s physicality more merit than it’s due? In 1984, Steve McCurry’s iconic photograph of the Afghan girl that left an indelible mark in the world’s collective memory. However, the Afghan girl’s other photographs, made at the same time, did not manage to stir the same feeling as the one that made worldwide fame. In the documentary, The Afghan Girl: A Life Revealed, which documents McCurry going on a hunt to find the Afghan girl decades after he shot her, shows that while the photographer had made alternative pictures of the girl, the most striking was the one that was published.

The two photographs and the context they were made in, of course are incomparable. With respect to Khan however, although his story has gone viral, one cannot tell till when it’s going to last. That’s the beauty and the equally disconcerting aspect of social media. It has transformed the lives of many — even those who haven’t signed up for it.