New Delhi, India – In early August, Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, made a public declaration of love for India designed to counter a virtual campaign being waged against him and his latest film.
“I want to assure everyone, I really love [my] country. So please don’t boycott my films,” Khan told a group of journalists on August 1, 10 days before the release of Laal Singh Chaddha, a remake of Hollywood’s Forrest Gump starring Khan and directed by Advait Chandan.
The statement came after #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha had been trending on Twitter for weeks.
Led by handles predominantly belonging to upper-caste Hindus, the boycott posts, videos and messages – many of them blatantly Islamophobic – were amplified by thousands of anonymous handles, mostly aligned with the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu-first, majoritarian ideology.
Some alleged that Khan, a Muslim, was anti-Hindu. They cited his 2014 film, PK, where he played an alien who lands in India and is confounded by how the devout are exploited in the name of religion.
Others dredged up old clips of Khan, including one from November 2015 when he spoke of a rising sense of “insecurity, fear and despondency” because of growing mob violence, lynchings of Muslims, religious intolerance, and the lack of a response from the BJP government, in power since 2014, or the police.
The general consensus in Bollywood is that no controversy can keep India’s cinema-crazy audience away from a film if they want to watch it, and Khan, 57, is one of its most bankable stars.
His 2016 film Dangal (Wrestling Competition), about a father who trains his two young daughters to wrestle, remains the highest-grossing Indian film, at home and abroad. PK is listed as the seventh-highest-grossing Indian film.
Laal Singh Chaddha, a film with a budget of $22m to $25m, has been in the making since 2018 and was expected to bring cheer to Bollywood, which has been struggling financially since the COVID pandemic.
But the box office verdict was unanimous: The film is Khan’s biggest flop.
Due to poor audience figures, theatres across the country reportedly dropped about 1,300 screenings of the film soon after its release and replaced it with other films, including Karthikeya 2, a small Telugu-language film dubbed in Hindi.
“The expectation was that it would make $25m from its theatrical run of three to four weeks in India, of which the major chunk comes in the first week. But its total recovery is not going to cross $16-17m,” Sanjay Mehta, a film exhibitor and distributor, told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a shocker for the industry.”
‘Hindus are not watching the film’
Ishant Sharma, 35, a resident of the northern Indian state of Punjab, is the national president of Shiv Sena Hind – a vigilante group of upper-caste Hindu men he says is devoted to protecting Hinduism and is not affiliated with any political party.
On August 11, the day of the film’s release, he and a few other saffron-clad men with long red marks on their forehead – a sign of Hindu religiosity – marched to a multiplex where Laal Singh Chaddha was playing. They shouted slogans, submitted a complaint and forced the show to be stopped.
Similar protests by other groups took place in Delhi and in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh.
“Our protest is not against Laal Singh Chaddha. The protest is against Aamir Khan because he insulted our Dharam [religion] in PK,” Sharma told Al Jazeera, adding that he was happy Khan’s latest film had struggled.
“Hindus are not watching the film. The film is a flop,” he said.
After the film’s release, at least three of India’s most-watched news channels devoted their prime-time shows to negative coverage of Aamir Khan and his film.
Times Now, which has 30 percent of the market share of English news channels in India, discussed Khan in the context of “Why Bollywood hurts Hindu sentiments”.
In Mumbai, a widely respected film writer-director who did not want to be named due to a fear of reprisals, has been reaching out to actors, directors and others to discuss how to counter what he says is “a clear-cut hate campaign” against the film.
“It’s an organised campaign whose purpose is twofold. First is the obliteration of Muslim voices. Bollywood is the last bastion of secularism that’s still standing. Nowhere else do you find Muslims holding such great power … And [the BJP] are not happy,” he told Al Jazeera.
He said the BJP also wants to control Bollywood and harness its power through promoting films that have been criticised for anti-Muslim stances, such as The Kashmir Files. Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed the film, several BJP-ruled states gave it tax breaks and some offered paid leave to their staff to go watch the film.
“If we don’t counter this hate campaign, it’s definitely going to get worse because there is a plan,” he said – adding that there is already an online campaign to boycott the film Pathan, starring another Muslim actor in Shahrukh Khan, even though it is not due for release until January 2023.
The BJP’s national spokesperson RP Singh said the protests against Laal Singh Chaddha and the boycott calls were not supported by the BJP.
“We have nothing to do with the film or the protests,” he told Al Jazeera.
When asked about a petition filed by a BJP leader to ban the film in the state of West Bengal, Singh said: “Is the BJP’s name on it? It’s not. Everyone has the freedom to [petition] courts for whatever they want.”
Meanwhile, others dispute that the boycott has harmed Laal Singh Chaddha’s fortunes.
“It is a resounding flop,” film trade analyst Komal Nahata told Al Jazeera, but he laid the blame on its quality.
He said the 165-minute film – which has received mixed reviews – was overly long, slow and not very engaging. He recalled getting tired of Khan’s voiceover throughout the film.
“It was horrible. I wanted to scream: ‘Please shut up,’” he said.
Director, producer and writer Hansal Mehta said there is general gloom in Bollywood over this “never been seen before backlash”, but that he does not think the boycott campaign against Laal Singh Chaddha is organised or sponsored.
“We don’t know the source. How did films become so big that the ruling party spends all its time and machinery on pulling down a comparatively small industry? It’s reductionist to say that this is happening because of the ruling party,” he told Al Jazeera.
But Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 79, one of India’s most respected film directors, said the boycott contributed to the poor box office performance.
“Nothing seems to be official … It’s deniable officially because there seems to be no source for it, but it’s immensely communal and has ‘sanction’ [by some BJP members],” he told Al Jazeera.
“The net result is that a film has been affected.”.
He dismissed the explanations given by those boycotting Khan’s film. “These are diversions, excuses,” he said.
“Fundamentally it’s because his name is Aamir Khan. It’s anti-Muslim in its soul.”