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Bollywood star ‘King Khan’ returns to big screen amid Hindu far-right ire

Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan has returned to the silver screen for the first time in four years with a big-budget action movie that has sparked ire from Hindu far-right groups.

“Pathaan”, which hit cinemas on Wednesday, a day ahead of India’s Republic Day celebrations, also features Bollywood heartthrob Deepika Padukone and action hero John Abraham — as well as songs and special effects galore.

The success of “Pathaan”, where Khan plays a spy fighting a militant outfit, is crucial for the Indian film industry that has seen a spate of high-profile flops since the Covid-19 pandemic began, as Netflix and Amazon have provided varied, and much cheaper, content at home.

Khan, 57, is among India’s biggest stars boasting a fan following of millions at home and abroad.

Also popularly known as “King Khan” and “Badshah”, he has been ruling Bollywood for more than 30 years.

But he is making a comeback to the big screen after a string of personal and professional setbacks.

His last mega release “Zero” in 2018 was a flop at the box office and his son was arrested last year in a drugs-related case which was later dropped.

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Protests against Khan

The countdown to “Pathaan” has been mired in controversy with hardline Hindu groups protesting over one of its racy songs in which Padukone is seen in a saffron-coloured bikini.

Hindu groups say saffron is a colour associated with their religion and is considered sacred. Khan is from India’s Muslim minority.

There were calls to ban the film unless the song was removed.

The hashtag #BoycottPathaan also trended on Twitter, in line with recent repeated social media campaigns against certain films by Hindu right-wingers.

Fellow megastar Aamir Khan’s “Laal Singh Chaddha” and Ranbir Kapoor’s “Brahmastra” also faced boycott calls recently.

On Wednesday, activists from a hardline Hindu group protested with “Boycott Pathaan” banners in Bengaluru, local media reported.

Shouting slogans, they also burnt the posters of the movie.

Similar protests were held in the eastern state of Bihar on Tuesday and in Assam last Friday.

“It is full of obscenities,” said Hemanta Ratha, chief of Odisha political party Kalinga Sena, as dozens of its activists shouted slogans against Khan and tore down the film’s posters on Wednesday. 

“It will have a bad impact on society.”

Record bookings

Despite the negative publicity and controversial build-up, the movie opened to a massive response from the audience across the country.

People wearing “Pathaan” T-shirts and banging drums gathered outside cinemas in Mumbai.

news network said that record advance bookings of over 500,000 tickets had been made for its first day.

Khan, who plays the role of a suave spy with tousled long hair and washboard abs, said that 25 single-screen cinemas across the country were reopening on Wednesday, thanks to the movie.

“Growing up I only watched films in single screens. It is uniquely enjoyable,” he said in Hindi on Twitter on Tuesday.

“I pray that you and I both are successful. Congratulations on your reopenings.”

Bollywood has been struggling in recent years to produce the kind of major money-spinning blockbusters that have made it so successful in India and further afield.

Its Hindi-language output is also facing a tough challenge from films made in other languages such as “RRR” which this month won a Golden Globe and was on Tuesday nominated for an Oscar for best original song.

Taran Adarsh, a film critic and business analyst, praised “Pathaan” as the first reviews started trickling in.

“#Pathaan has it all: Star power, style, scale, songs, soul, substance and surprises…,” he tweeted.

“And, most importantly, #SRK, who’s back with a vengeance… Will be the first #Blockbuster of 2023.”

“It has seen a bumper opening, the second-best in Bollywood ever, even on a non-holiday, mid-week day, when audiences don’t go to theatres,” said Girish Johar, a producer and trade analyst who tracks box-office figures.

Of the 5,000 screens “Pathaan” was playing in, the occupancy rate was a high 65-75 percent, a rarity in Bollywood for a film opening day, Johar said, especially as it was midweek.

The film will now be shown on 8,000 screens, 2,500 of whom are abroad where Khan has a strong following, Adarsh said.

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