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Pathaan is not just any other Hindi movie. It’s a battle for India

Given the frenzy of Hindutva right's boycott campaign, many believed that Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan had flopped even before it was released. We are seeing how wrong they were.

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Rarely has a film’s release been so important in the battle for a tolerant India, free from hatred and communally charged bullying. Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan, which released Wednesday, is much more than just another Hindi movie. The advance box office reception to the film tells us something about today’s India.

In recent years, the boycott has become an Indian art form. A section of the Hindutva right, often encouraged by BJP politicians, invents some grievance against a star or movie. They resolve to boycott the star and the companies that use him or her as a sponsor. And they declare they will boycott any films they claim are offensive.

A frenzy is created on Twitter and other social media and the victims of the boycott are expected to run scared. The trend gathered momentum after Aamir Khan was targeted over remarks he made in 2015 about intolerance in India. As if to illustrate Aamir’s point, a boycott was declared: any company that used his services as a brand ambassador or an endorser would see its products boycotted.

To their eternal shame, corporations ran scared and at least one dropped Aamir. This tactic was so successful that even Manohar Parrikar, then India’s defence minister, gloated about how effective it had been.

Many of the boycott threats against movies coincided with a slump in the box office performance of Hindi films in general. But of course this was seen as proof that boycotts worked. 

Also read: Facing boycott calls? Show a little courage and wait for the mob to give up and move on

First Brahmastra, now Pathaan

It required somebody with guts to take on the boycott brigade and to prove that the threats were just so much hot air. The first sign of a successful fightback came when Ayan Mukherji’s Brahmastra, written off by the film industry because of boycott threats, became a box office hit.

In that case, the manufactured grievance was particularly silly. Some hard-working hater had trawled through all of the interviews given by Ranbir Kapoor, the film’s star, over the years and found one in which he said he liked beef. This was declared to be quite enough to warrant a boycott of Bramashtra.

The case of Shah Rukh Khan is more pointed. Part of the Hindutva section hates Shah Rukh and the manner in which his success embodies the triumph of Indian secularism. Khan is a regular target of Hindutva groups. When his son Aryan was framed and jailed in a drug case, you could argue that this was the work of a rogue officer. (In fact this is the position of the narcotics authorities who have now dropped the drug charges.) But what was more significant was the manner in which many of the Hindu groups celebrated the arrest and attacked Shah Rukh on all the media available to it: from Twitter to Facebook to news TV channels.

So, as the release of Pathaan neared, it was clear that those who had opposed Shah Rukh earlier would find some excuse to complain about the film. They found it when the film’s first song titled ‘Besharam Rangfrom the film was released. In the song, Deepika Padukone wears a saffron bikini and this, the protesters said, was an insult to Hinduism.

As always, a BJP minister joined the mob. Narottam Mishra, the home minister of Madhya Pradesh, described the bikini as ‘highly objectionable’ and said that those who picturised the song had “a contaminated mentality.”

Predictably, various BJP supporters began demanding a ban on the song and called for a boycott of the film. Other Sangh Parivar members staged protests and Pragya Thakur and others of her ilk came out against the film.

Given the frenzy of the Hindutva right’s campaign, many people believed that Pathaan had flopped even before it was released. The opposition to the film was just too strong.

Over the last few days, we have seen how wrong they were. The boycott calls have made no difference to the film’s box office prospects. A day before its release, the film had already broken records for advance booking. It was expected to take Rs 45 to 50 crore in ticket revenues on the opening day.

Nor have the film’s distributors been deterred by the boycott calls. Pathaan will have the biggest release of any Hindi movie to date. It will be released in over 100 countries and in India, it will be shown on 5,000 screens.

It does not automatically follow that the film will be a super hit. That will depend on whether audiences like it and on word-of-mouth responses. But what these figures prove is that the boycott brigade has failed. Despite being told not to see the film, movie fans have flocked to the advance booking windows in historic numbers. 

Also read: Modi’s defence of movies is key for Vishwaguru goal. Content is the new internationalism

What now for boycott brigade

Does this mark the beginning of the end of the era of boycotts? I believe it does. We know now that they do not work and their failure only makes the Hindutva right look weak and ineffective.

This is not to say that there will not be more boycott calls, only that there will be fewer nationally organised boycotts that are openly supported by BJP ministers.

The clearest indication that times had changed came when Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke at the meeting of the BJP national executive. The media was not invited to the meeting but BJP office-bearers were asked to brief journalists that Modi had asked party leaders to refrain from making unnecessary remarks about films.

According to the briefings, Modi complained that the party’s hard work was being overshadowed by BJP leaders’s remarks that were made only to get headlines.

Even more significant than the remarks themselves was the decision to communicate them to the media in briefings. Modi wanted the message to go out that he opposed boycotts.  That he said all this when the Pathaan boycott was raging made it clear what the context was.

It was a wise warning. Apart from the freedom-of-expression argument, which does not usually unduly worry the BJP, there is also a we-look-silly-now factor. No party leader wants his followers to engage in activities that will fail so spectacularly that the whole party would look ridiculous.

Because the truth is that boycotts are no more than bully tactics. They don’t actually work but they derive their power from the possibility that they might just be effective. That possibility alone is enough to scare away corporations and businesses who drop the actors targeted by boycott calls. And it makes filmmakers nervous about tackling any subjects that the Hindutva right might dislike.

Somebody needed to call out the bullies. And with the record advance bookings for Pathaan, it is clear that the people of India and Shah Rukh Khan have shown these bullies how little they care about them and their bogus boycotts.

Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets @virsanghvi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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