The appeal of Shah Rukh Khan, a romantic hero by essence, has won over repeated calls for boycott by Hindu extremists. After a four-year absence, the Bollywood superstar was making his big return on Wednesday, January 25, in Pathan, by far the most awaited Indian film of the year.
However, before its release, the film was hit by controversy as part of a war waged by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Indian People’s Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, against the Bollywood rebels who refuse to flatter the government.
In a country plagued by rising religious intolerance, the title of the 146-minute film was enough to irk extremists. Pathan refers to the descendants of Pashtuns in Afghanistan who are mostly Muslims. But it was the excerpt from one of the songs in the film that finally triggered the ire of Hindu nationalists in early December.
The video of Besharam Rank (“shameless color” in Hindi), with its torrid choreography, appears harmless. It features actress Deepika Padukone in a saffron bikini, saffron being a color associated with Hinduism, and Khan in a green shirt which can be interpreted as a reference to Islam, the actor’s religion. It was enough to trigger calls for boycott.
Hindu nationalists consider the song disrespectful to their religion. Madhya Pradesh’s Home Affairs Minister Narottam Mishra, a member of the BJP, even threatened to have the film banned for this reason.
In several states, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishva Hindu Parishad, two Hindu extremist groups linked to the BJP, held demonstrations against the film. In early January, in Gujarat, the stronghold of the prime minister, they destroyed posters of the film and shouted insults at the 57-year-old actor.
Modi has reportedly asked his party leaders to refrain from “unnecessary remarks” about the film during the party’s annual executive meeting on January 16-17.
‘Long live India!’
These calls for a boycott do not seem to have had much of an impact on ticket sales. More than a million tickets had already been sold on the BookMyShow platform on the eve of the film’s release.
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Several movie theaters opened their doors as early as 6:00 am for the occasion. “I finished my night job at 4:30 am and came straight here. I haven’t been to the cinema since Shah Rukh’s last film in 2018,” said Aakash Bhatia, in his 30s, as he waited for the 7:40 am show at PVR cinema in Saket, South of Delhi, as he took a picture of himself in front of the poster.
The 257-seat theater was full. When Khan’s face finally appeared on the screen, a few minutes into the film, the entire theater cheered. The film is a patriotic action movie in the words of Khan himself. Together with Deepika Padukone, they both play spies whose mission is to save India from a terrorist attack.
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