Shah Rukh Khan, the romantic hero by essence, has defeated bigotry with a nationalist movie. As such it has confounded Hindu extremists who had called for its boycott but found PM Narendra Modi advising restraint.
Barring scattered events of poster-tearing in Pune, Bhagalpur and Indore the movie opened on Wednesday to an overwhelming response from excited moviegoers. After a four-year absence, the Bollywood superstar made his big return in Pathaan, described as by far the most awaited Indian film of the year.
In a country plagued by rising religious intolerance, the title of the 146-minute film was enough to irk extremists. Pathaan refers to the descendants of Pakhtuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan who are mostly Muslims. In the past Pathan characters in particular have been shown in Indian movies as loyal friends and formidable foes.
But it was the excerpt from one of the songs in the King Khan film that finally triggered the ire of Hindutva bigots in early December. The video of ‘Besharam Rang’ [shameless colour in Hindi], with its torrid choreography, appears harmless. It features actress Deepika Padukone in a saffron bikini, saffron being a colour claimed by Hindu nationalists, 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.
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. But the prime minister also personally led a campaign to promote another movie — The Kashmir Files.
The movie was described by critics as an anti-Muslim work albeit veiled in sympathy for the tragedy-stricken Kashmiri Hindus many of them living in exile from the home state. The calls for a boycott against Pathaan do not seem to have had much of an impact on ticket sales. The global earnings on the opening day hit 100 crores rupees, according to reports. As Khan’s face finally appears on the screen, a few minutes into the film, audiences have erupted in loud cheers, reports say. The film is a patriotic action movie in the words of Khan himself. Together with Padukone, they both play spies whose mission is to save India from a terrorist attack.
“A soldier doesn’t ask what his country can do for him. He asks what he can do for his country,” Khan, who plays Pathaan, says in the trailer, before saying “Jai Hind!” The actor, known to his fans by his initials SRK, challenges the stereotypes that Hindu extremists try to perpetuate about Indian Muslims.
Khan, a defender of secularism, married a Hindu. He has played all kinds of roles and has never let his religion define him, without renouncing it.
“He embodies a plural and multicultural India,” said a gushing review. In the eyes of the public, it said, the success of SRK is also emblematic of the “Indian dream” after the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s.
The actor, meanwhile, has always been careful not to openly oppose the policies of the Hindu nationalist government. The only criticism he voiced was in 2015 when he spoke of “the rise of intolerance” after the BJP came to power in 2014. He also said that “not being secular was the worst crime a patriot could commit”. These statements earned him being compared to a terrorist by Yogi Adityanath, a BJP member who now rules Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Since then, SRK has remained silent but his films continue to be the target of boycott calls. Aryan Khan, then 23 years old, spent almost a month behind bars before the charges were finally dropped due to lack of evidence. But fans of King Khan love him at least as much as extremists hate him.
“He is the most famous Indian in the world, ahead of Modi,” one of them said.
Originally published in Dawn, January 27, 2023