According to Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates because “you never know what you’re going to get”. Now, an Indian remake of the movie has been hit by boycott calls over years-old comments by Aamir Khan. It is the latest example of how Bollywood actors, particularly Muslims like Khan, are feeling increased pressure under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Indian movie, Laal Singh Chaddha, a spin on the 1994 Hollywood hit with Tom Hanks, is expected to be one of India’s biggest films this year.
This is due in large part to its main star, 57-year-old Khan, one of the Indian industry’s most bankable actors with past blockbusters like Three Idiots (2009) and Dangal (2016).
But ahead of the Aug 11 release, the internet is awash with clips from a 2015 interview when Khan expressed a growing “sense of fear” and that he and his then-wife discussed leaving India.
“She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day,” he said.
More than 200,000 tweets, many from supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been shared since last month calling for people to spurn the movie with the hashtag #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha.
“Aamir Khan married two Hindu Women, yet named his kids Junaid, Azad & Ira. (Hindu co-star) Kareena (Kapoor) married a Muslim & promptly named her kids Taimur & Jehangir,” said one tweet, referring to the children’s typical Muslim names.
“That’s enough reasons to boycott Laal Singh Chaddha, basically a production from Bollywood’s Love Jihad club. #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha,” it added, using a derogatory term coined by Hindu extremists who accuse Muslim men of marrying Hindu women and forcing them to convert.
Nicknamed “Mr Perfectionist”, Khan has been credited with pushing films beyond Bollywood’s traditional fare of song and dance into social and cultural issues.
He also hosted a TV chat show — Satyamev Jayate — that discussed touchy themes like rape, domestic violence and corruption.
The furore over his new film — which adapts the famous line by Hanks to say that “life is like a golgappa” — is such that this week Khan stressed his patriotism, a key tenet of the Modi government.
“I feel sad that some of the people… believe that I am someone who doesn’t like India,” he told local media.
“That’s not the case. Please don’t boycott my film. Please watch my film.”
Films have long sparked controversy — as well as violence — in India.
But the heat being felt by Khan, one of a clutch of Muslim megastars in the industry along with Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, mirrors growing intolerance, marginalisation and vilification of the community, commentators say.
“There is no doubt that Aamir is being targeted by those spreading hatred towards Muslims,” one commentator said.
Modi’s BJP owes its origins to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militaristic group espousing Hindutva, or making India an exclusively Hindu state.
Lynching of Muslims by Hindu mobs over so-called cow protection and other hate crimes have sown fear in the 200- million-strong Muslim population.
Social media is full of misinformation claiming that Muslims will soon outnumber Hindus — due to inter-religious marriages — or that the minority is a treasonous fifth column backed by Pakistan.
Critics say that the world’s most prolific film industry and its stars have been gradually changing their output to fit the government narrative since Modi came to power in 2014.
In 2019, the hagiographic “PM Narendra Modi” was too much even for the election watchdog, which delayed its release until after a vote that year.
There has been a recent string of military-themed movies that have been nationalistic, all-guns-blazing stories of heroics by soldiers and police — usually Hindus — against enemies outside and within India.