Opinion |

In India, Modi’s Hindu Nationalists Declare War on Bollywood’s Muslim Superstars

India's Hindu nationalists are testing a new weapon to topple Muslim superstars: Boycotting their movies. As Aamir Khan's long-awaited remake of 'Forrest Gump' bombs at the box office, their tactics seem to be working

Samaan Lateef
Samaan Lateef
New Delhi
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Bollywood actor Aamir Khan waves at fans in happier days: Now, Modi’s Hindu nationalist trolls are trying to topple India’s Muslim movie superstars
Bollywood actor Aamir Khan waves at fans in happier days: Now, Modi’s Hindu nationalist trolls are trying to topple India’s Muslim movie superstarsCredit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Samaan Lateef
Samaan Lateef
New Delhi

NEW DELHI – Almost a decade ago, Bollywood actor and screenwriter Atul Kulkarni rewrote the script of Robert Zemeckis' 1994 film Forrest Gump for an Indian audience, renamed as "Laal Singh Chaddha," the name of the character around whose hyperactive biography the movie rotates.

Kulkarni transposed a film with roots in quintessential American culture into an Indian setting. He adapted the terrain, characters, history, and events to create a telling portrayal of modern India, swapping out Vietnam and the JFK assassination for India's first cricket World Cup win, the Kargil war with Pakistan, the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in New Delhi and the Mumbai terror attacks which killed 170 people of various nationalities, including six Americans and six Jews.

The next challenge was to persuade Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest and most bankable stars, to play the eponymous hero. Initially skeptical about an Indian remake of such an iconic Hollywood movie, Khan gave his assent after going through Kulkarni’s script.

The third challenge was securing the rights to 'translate' and localize the script from the makers of the original film. The entire process took around seven years before the cameras started rolling in October 2019. It took three years to wrap up the shooting after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the original schedule. As suiting its ambitious scale and breadth, the movie was shot at 200 locations across India at a cost of $22 million, positioning the Hindi-language film as one of the 15 most expensive Indian-made movies ever.

However, the Hindu right-wing organizations who constitute and are prime agitators of the voting base of the current Indian regime launched a sustained boycott campaign against the film, weeks before its August 11 release. So much so that when the movie hit the screens, activists with megaphones in their hands called on moviegoers outside the cinema halls not to watch it, accusing its star actor Aamir of engaging in "anti-national activities."

That is barely coded language for "Muslim," and it is exactly the same kind of bigoted language with which other Muslim Bollywood superstars have been targeted in recent months and years, alongside suggestions they should leave India for Pakistan.

A poster of Aamir Khan-starrer "Laal Singh Chaddha" is seen outside a cinema in New Delhi, India in August.Credit: ADNAN ABIDI/ REUTERS

The government's failure to stop boycotters led to widespread grassroots fear – either of intimidation or, conversely, from of a lurking, unsubstantiated fear unchallenged by the authorities that the agitators were right – ensuring the success of the boycott. The film earned an absolutely meager $6 million in India, and over $7.5 million in overseas markets, failing to even earn back the amount invested in its production.

This has caused not only millions of dollars in losses for the producers but more importantly dealt a big blow to the once-untouchable superstardom of Aamir, described by Forbes and Newsweek as the "world’s biggest movie star" and "the most bankable movie star in the world," respectively.

India’s film industry, the largest in the world, is worth $2 billion and produces around 1,500 to 2,000 films annually. Aamir’s movies have earned anywhere between $100 to $150 million. "Dangal," one of his highest-grossing movies made in 2016, earned an astonishing $311–330 million worldwide—including $216.2 million in China. Production companies invested generously in his films as the returns were not only seemingly guaranteed, but would often be disproportionately higher than the amount actually invested.

In this 2017 photo, a group of Chinese women take a selfie with a poster of the Indian Bollywood blockbuster film "Dangal" at a cinema in Beijing.Credit: Andy Wong / AP

But after this latest movie bombing so badly, Bollywood bosses now have reason to be chary of starring Aamir in their future projects. More so because the failure of "Laal Singh Chaddha" is traced largely to the organized rightwing boycott campaign. In terms of an independent assessment of its worth as entertainment and a cultural artifact, the film has received mixed reviews which, in the Indian context by themselves, do not really influence any movie’s box office performance—not least when such a megastar is involved.

There is also the wider context of Bollywood’s post-covid doldrums: an exceptionally high proportion of expected blockbusters have tanked at the box office in 2022. But even in this environment, Lal Singh’s poor performance is an outlier.

"I'm shocked by Lal Singh, myself," says the noted Bollywood filmmaker and actor Avijit Dutt. "I do know the Khans are targeted by the [Hindu nationalist] troll armies and the organized hit squads of the dispensation," meaning the vigilantes backed by India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

However, he added, Aamir Khan’s film isn’t the only unexpected recent loser: Akshay Kumar, a Hindu Bollywood superstar, earned a paltry $8 million with his recent "Samrat Prithviraj." "How did it suffer the same fate?" Dutt asked. "Especially since he (Akshay) is a votary [supporter] of the ruling party."

There’s an important difference though: There was no boycott against Akshay's film, which is based on the story of a Hindu warrior king who fought and lost a 12th century battle with a Muslim king from Afghanistan. Therefore, its failure was a normal occurrence, a result of the movie not resonating with the prospective audience, as with many other movies in the country.

A Hindu Sena activist shouts slogans after he was arrested by police outside Bollywood actor Aamir Khan's residence in Mumbai, India, 2015.Credit: AP

Helpfully, this year there has been a perfect parallel example to Aamir Khan’s experience, demonstrating the effect of a quasi-official anti-Muslim boycott vs wholehearted government and Hindu nationalist endorsement.

"Kashmir Files," a film based on the 1990 migration of Kashmiri Hindus from the Muslim majority Kashmir region—an Indian-administered territory disputed between India and Pakistan—has turned out to be a surprise hit of the year, raking in $41 million.

Widely regarded as a propaganda work, "Kashmir Files" was promoted by no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah—the No 2 in the government—including the ruling party’s politicians and millions of its workers. A number of BJP-ruled states even waived the usual tax on the film as well.

Khans now viewed with hostility

The box office performances of "Laal Singh Chaddha" and "Kashmir Files" are thus studies in contrasting fortunes: One was felled by a widespread boycott campaign led on the streets and on social media, and another was promoted by the government machinery from the prime minister on down to the ordinary (cinema-going) workers of the ruling party.

What is more, the failure of Aamir Khan’s latest venture fits into a pattern: The movies of another megastar, Shah Rukh Khan, have also been bombing at the box office. The reason, again, is the Hindu rightwing backlash against him. He has taken a break from movie-making since his big-budget film 2018 film "Zero" flopped. Similarly, "Antim" the last movie of Salman Khan, another big star, released last year, didn’t do well.

Vehicles pass by a poster of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan's film in Mumbai, India, 2010.Credit: Rafiq Maqbool / AP

Aamir and Shah Rukh, along with Salman—all Muslims—are India’s three biggest stars, and up until Modi’s takeover in 2014, a shining testament to India’s sterling secular credentials. But the Hindu majoritarian government of Modi, whose party—the BJP—seeks to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu theocratic state) has sought to control the country’s entertainment space and use it as a captive tool to further its ideological agenda.

In this ambitious enterprise, the BJP is egged on by its ideological progenitor, the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS)—a paramilitary Hindu supremacist movement inspired, in part, by Adolf Hitler.

The Khans, who have reigned over Bollywood and, in turn, over the hearts of hundreds of millions of Indians for decades and also have a substantial international fan following, aren’t seen in sync with the BJP’s civilizational objectives. The now repeated use of boycotts against their films ensures that they lose their stardust and shills those who enjoy good relations with the Hindu nationalist government fill the void.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan greets fans during a promotional event for his film in Mumbai, India, Thursday, 2013.Credit: Rajanish Kakade / AP

To some extent, that is already happening. Akshay Kumar, for example, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Khans’ engineered downfall. So has Ajay Devgan. Both are seen as close to the ruling party and have starred in period films that evoke and promote a Hindu nationalist version of Indian history. Films such as "Kesari" and "Samrat Prithviraj" starring Akshay, and "Tanaaji" and "Bhuj" starring Devgan, or for that matter "Kashmir Files" are recasting the political and historical discourse in India, turning it more and more anti-Muslim.

Perhaps the most crude example of this is the period drama "Padmaavat" released in 2018, which portrayed a medieval Indian Muslim king Allaudin Khilji as a barbarian who lusted after and waged a war to snatch the beautiful Hindu queen Rani Padmaavati after killing her husband Ratan Sen, ruler of the Chittor kingdom.

Where does New India leave Khans?

With Modi’s far-right government entrenched in power, the Khans’ future looks uncertain. Already with the failure of "Laal Singh Chaddha," Aamir Khan’s next movie "Mogul" has been shelved.

The film’s title is eponymous with the Mughal dynasty, which ruled over a vast empire stretching from today’s Afghanistan to Bangladesh for over 200 years before the British took over, but in its current idiomatic form “mogul” denotes an aristocratic, powerful and wealthy person and has lost its Muslim associations.

Ironically the movie is actually about a Hindu film producer and founder of India’s best-known music label T-Series, Gulshan Kumar, who was assassinated, allegedly on the orders of the Muslim underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. But the title is still a red flag for Hindu nationalists, for whom the Mughals are the archetypal Muslim invaders of India; anything that evokes association with their empire is an anathema.

Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) participate in an election rally in Kolkata, India, 2021.Credit: Bikas Das / AP

Having felled Aamir Khan’s film, the Hindu rightwing has turned its attention to Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming movie "Pathan," set to be released in January 2023. Again, "Pathan" is ‘disadvantaged’ from the get-go by a ‘Muslim-sounding’ title.

A Pathan is a member of the Pashto-speaking people of Afghanistan in North West Pakistan, who are Muslims by religion. Pathan Muslims live in India too, and Shah Rukh counts himself as one of them. Already, #BoycottPathan hashtags and Youtube videos asking people not to watch the movie have surfaced, suggesting a deliberate and engineered anti-Muslim troll chorus. One such video, uploaded in March this year, has a quarter of a million views with people spewing venom against all Khans.

"Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir are the names of three pigs," says one interviewee in the video. "We should all boycott their movies."

"They are Muslims and we are Hindus," says another, and then adds: "Bharat Mata ki Jai [Victory to Mother India]."

In this fundamentally altered India, the Khans are struggling to belong. They belonged to a different India, where a nation with an 80 percent Hindu population worshipped its Muslim stars. Increasingly relegated to the background, they serve as a reminder of an India that has been lost.

Samaan Lateef is an India-based journalist writing for the UK’s Daily Telegraph. He grew up in India-administered Kashmir and has written extensively on South Asia politics, human rights, minorities, and border conflicts between India, China, and Pakistan. Twitter: @Samaanlateef

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