Hindu nationalists have met their match in one of India’s most beloved movie stars.
In 2010, Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan starred in a film called My Name Is Khan that served as a critique of Islamophobia in the United States in the post-9/11 era. In the movie, Khan goes on a journey to the United States to meet the American president and tell him that having an Islamic last name doesn’t make him a terrorist. In real life, however, his name has made him a target at home.
A year after Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, Khan said there was a climate of intolerance in the country that “will take us to the dark ages.” Two days later, a senior leader of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and an acolyte of Modi, Yogi Adityanath, said Khan spoke the language of terrorists and equated him to the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorism attacks. Adityanath threatened Khan, saying he would be out of business if a “huge mass” of Indians, implying Hindus, boycotted his films. Since then, fringe political outfits linked to the BJP—and even some BJP leaders—have repeatedly attacked Khan.
The latest attack began when the trailer of Khan’s latest film, Pathaan, was released last month. Hindu nationalists of the BJP and those linked to the party expressed three major objections. First, that actress Deepika Padukone should not have worn a saffron-hued bikini in a song titled “Besharam Rang” because saffron is a sacred color in Hinduism. Second, the bikini was a few centimeters too revealing to be approved by the far right’s cultural police. And third, and more tellingly perhaps, they slandered Khan for his fitness, questioning whether the 57-year-old’s chiseled “six-pack” abdomen could possibly be real.
The charges were ludicrous. Bollywood actresses have worn saffron in sensuous songs before, but it’s never been so controversial. Moreover, Padukone wore a green skirt and several other colors in the song. The attack didn’t make sense, but it was nonetheless vicious. One protester on air, who was later revealed to be an actor himself, dared Khan to dress his daughter in a green bikini instead of Padukone, a Hindu actress. Green is a sacred color in Islam, and Khan’s wife is also Hindu.
“Had Deepika worn a saffron bikini opposite a Hindu actor, there would have been no controversy,” Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the Caravan, told Foreign Policy from Delhi in a phone interview. “It is all because [Khan] is a Muslim.” Several male Indian actors have flaunted abs before, and rare have they met with such ridicule.
Many people believe that the insidious campaign to discredit Khan emerges out of Hindu nationalists’ broader effort to humiliate minorities into accepting their secondary status in a country they want to claim for themselves. There have been frequent calls by the BJP to turn India into a theocratic state—a Hindu rashtra or a country predominantly of and for Hindus. As part of that bid, they hope to control Bollywood itself, the country’s biggest cultural force and its most effective messenger.
After #BoycottPathaan trended on Twitter, #BoycottBollywood soon followed. There were several well-crafted tweets, as if coordinated with one another, calling on directors to change their scripts and fall in line—or risk a total boycott. But this was not the first time Bollywood came under attack. Scholars who studied the trend between August 1 and September 12 discovered thousands of ghost accounts created over these months that solely tweeted with the hashtag #BoycottBollywood. More than 300 accounts each tweeted over 1,000 tweets on Bollywood over that nearly month and a half, “suggesting organized behavior,” said Joyojeet Pal, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who conducted the study. Junior politicians of the BJP and of its affiliates were also discovered to be pushing the content.
Outrage on social media was to a large extent manufactured, but it is hard to say how many Indians genuinely approved of the sentiment. An investigation by news website the Wire revealed that many of the news stories that defamed Khan and called for Pathaan’s boycott reflected the views of political partisans rather than genuine protesters. Meanwhile, Pathaan has enjoyed enormous ticket sales, a resounding rejection of the calls to boycott Khan’s movies and Bollywood more generally.
Fans thronged cinemas in cities across India and at screenings abroad to see Khan return to the screen after a four-year hiatus. The controversies instigated around him—including outright falsehoods about how he had supposedly donated millions of dollars to Pakistan and was caught spitting at the funeral of Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar—did little to dampen public enthusiasm for his movie.
As Khan hopped between buildings, dived off planes, and walked on the facade of a skyscraper, all to save India from a terrorist attack, Indians across faiths seemed proud that Bollywood could also produce its own version of Mission Impossible and were eager to applaud Khan’s reinvention from romantic heartthrob to action hero. Even Indians abroad, who are arguably among the biggest believers in Hindu nationalism, rushed to screenings in the United Arab Emirates, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. The movie has reportedly smashed box office records in India, and in the first 16 days since its release, it earned nearly $10 million.
Meera Rizvi, a professional scriptwriter whose maternal ancestors were ethnic Pashtuns like Khan’s, said she had little interest in watching the movie but attended a screening as an act of resistance to bullying from Hindu nationalists. “Bullies have been empowered by the right-wing government, and they think they can do whatever they want,” Rizvi said. “I went to see the movie to stand up against the bullying Khan has been subjected to.” Many others said they believed it was all a useless controversy. Anju Dhawan, an interior designer, said she didn’t understand why there was controversy at all. “Shah Rukh is an actor. Hindu, Muslim has nothing to do with it,” she told Foreign Policy from Karnal, India.
The crowds, however, did not indicate a rejection of political polarization. At least two highly educated professionals FP spoke to believe in Hindu nationalist propaganda, making unsubstantiated allegations against Khan. Political analysts told FP that Pathaan’s success did not indicate a change of mood in a nation still in thrall of Modi and the BJP’s broader political agenda. “It showed that Hindu nationalists still do not have the ability to wipe out the appeal of a celebrity who is a Muslim, just like Indians would cheer a Muslim cricketer,” Bal said. “It didn’t mean the mood of the country has gone a certain way.”
Last week, Indian press reported that Modi called on his ministers to refrain from making unnecessary comments that overshadow the government’s developmental work. But that message has come far too late to rein in the mob, said filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. “It was about controlling their own people. Things have gone out of hand now,” Kashyap said. “When you stay silent, you empower prejudice and you empower hatred. It has now got so much empowered that it is a power in itself. The mob is out of control now.”