Shah Rukh Khan’s Bollywood blockbuster meets India’s culture wars

Outfit X, a cabal of terrorists-for-hire, are preparing an attack on India. Deployed to stop them is a grizzled, middle-aged agent with a man-bun and washboard abs. Between attending beach parties and skydiving into enemy lairs, he teams up with a fearsome, beautiful younger agent. A whirlwind of fist-fights, acrobatic near-misses and explosions ensues.

Aseem Chhabra, a film critic, isn’t convinced by the trailer for Pathaan, a big-budget Bollywood film out next week. But he’ll be watching because this marks the grand return, after a five-year hiatus, of India’s biggest actor: Shah Rukh Khan, the 57-year-old badshah, or king, of Bollywood. “He’s got such charm and charisma,” Chhabra says. “To see him dance and do the action scenes, it’ll be fun. I’ll go see the film just for that.”

Pathaan will be a test for Khan and Bollywood after a difficult few years. Not only does it follow a run of box office flops for one of the world’s biggest film industries. It is also a comeback for Khan, who has become a target for harassment from hardline Hindu groups, including members of prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Khan achieved unparalleled adoration as a boyish heart-throb in the 1990s, eschewing macho-man stereotypes for sensitive, worldly characters in films that encapsulated the optimism of a globalising India, Chhabra says. But in recent years, several of the actor’s releases have underwhelmed.

Audiences appear to have tired of the cookie-cutter action and romance formats of leading Bollywood production houses. India’s box office was dominated last year by films from the long-overlooked southern Indian-language film industries, such as Golden Globe-winning Telugu-language hit RRR. “That earlier luxury of “‘let’s make what we want, let’s price it how we want, and people will come’ — that’s out of the window,” says Vikram Malhotra, a Bollywood producer.

Will Khan, who has two more big releases planned this year, revive the industry’s fortunes? Pathaan “has, on paper, all the ingredients that should make for a massive hit”, an industry executive says. Expectations “are unusually high, because it’s coming after such a dry patch”.

But the film has itself become the subject of a now-familiar pattern of outrage, as the BJP wages a culture war to remake Bollywood. BJP allies have railed against the film, and a group from the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu nationalist group linked to the BJP, ripped down posters at a mall in Ahmedabad this month. The controversy stems partly from a steamy dance scene in which actor Deepika Padukone wears an orange bikini, deemed perilously close to saffron which is a sacred colour in Hinduism.

To some, the industry is a bastion of a secular, liberal vision of India, thanks in part to its many Muslim stars, Khan included. But to its Hindu nationalist critics, it is a cosy club of condescending, nepotistic elites producing films that antagonise religious sensibilities and it needs reform.

A year after Modi came to office in 2014, Khan said that “not being secular is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot”. Yogi Adityanath, now the BJP chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, compared the actor to a terrorist. Khan’s work, like that of other actors who have spoken out, has since faced calls for a boycott from rightwing groups.

In 2021, Khan’s then 23-year-old son Aryan was arrested by India’s Narcotics Control Bureau and jailed for nearly a month, though the authorities didn’t find any drugs on him. The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. Khan remained studiously silent throughout. But critics claimed the case was politically motivated and an NCB report found he was “deliberately targeted”.

“Bollywood is kind of in this identity crisis right now,” Suparna Sharma, a film writer, says. “It feels besieged by the government, and by bad box office returns.” But she argues that, when it comes to Khan, the public’s loyalties are clear. “This love that Shah Rukh enjoys,” she says, “he’s earned this.” Pathaan may not lift the industry out of its creative funk. But for fans around the world, King Khan’s reign is not over.

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