What does Pathaan’s massive success mean for the BJP?

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Unless you’ve been under a rock the past few days, you would have been inundated with news of the success of Pathaan. The Bollywood film starring Shah Rukh Khan hit theatres on Wednesday to record ticket sales. Even more interesting that the box office collections was, however, the clear public enthusiasm for the movie. Social media was flooded with videos of people dancing and celebrating the movie in a way that was rather rare for Bollywood in the present day and age.

I usually don’t write about movies on the India Fix but, of course, in the Total Politics of our times, even Bollywood has become a battleground for party politics. In part, the celebrations around Pathaan were so charged since they had a prominent political angle to them. The Bharatiya Janata Party had opposed both the movie as well as its lead, Shah Rukh Khan. In spite of that the film has broken through.

BJP vs Bollywood

The BJP has long had an ideological problem with Bollywood. In 2015, for example, Adityanath, now chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had compared Khan to the Pakistani mastermind of the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai city.

Since then, with the BJP growing in power, it has put the screws on Bollywood, India’s most prolific film industry. Waves of mobs, both online and offline, have attacked the Hindi film industry, arguing that it did not reflect Hindu nationalist ideologies well enough.

Much of this has focussed on the fact that Urdu-speaking Muslims from North India have been one of the prominent groups that have driven the industry since its inception. One constant epithet used for the film industry by Hindu nationalists on Twitter is “Urduwood”, pointing to the use of a Persianised Hindi-Urdu in songs and dialogue over the Union government-endorsed Sanskritised register.

One result of this politics is that Shah Rukh Khan became a particularly prominent target for Hindu nationalists. Not only is he Muslim, somewhat unusually for Bollywood, he is often upfront about his identity. This includes banal things like peppering his speech with inshallahs and salaams but also more concrete examples: speaking against intolerance in the initial years of Modi or even making unusually ideological, mainstream films like My Name is Khan or Raees.

A pushback

Unsurprisingly, the lead up to Pathaan was characterised by a strong attack from the BJP and its ideological allies. The BJP’s home minister of Madhya Pradesh even threatened to bar the movie from his state. This came after the shock arrest of Khan’s son in a trumped-up case. While the details of how he was arrested without any proof remain unclear, given that it was carried out by an agency controlled by the Modi government, the incident is often connected in popular perception with the BJP’s ideological anger against Bollywood and Khan.

Oddly enough, Khan seems to have doubled down in the face of this attack. Although he has been targeted by the BJP for his Muslimness, Khan has packed Pathaan with it. Kaffiyehs, salaams and sufi amulets are liberally sprinkled through the picture. And then, of course, is Pathaan himself. An unnamed orphan in the grand tradition of Hindi cinema, he carries the moniker “Pathaan”, a South Asian ethnic group that is entirely Muslim.

Moreover, Pathaan’s nationalism is over the top but not toxic. A Pakistani intelligence officer is Pathaan’s ally (and lover).

Aryan Khan, son of Shah Rukh Khan, after being released from jail on bail in 2021. Credit: PTI.

Mass media control

As Indians enjoy a three-hour respite from the politics of communal majoritarianism in a movie theatre, what does Pathaan’s success mean for Indian politics?

First, let’s make it clear that Pathaan will have very little direct influence on voting. Indians vote on a variety of issues, from free foodgrains to the charisma of a leader. Within this vast matrix, the highly ideological battle between Hindutva and Bollywood occupies a rather small space. Beyond committed Hindutva ideologues, most Indians would give this little mindspace to this much less deciding their vote on this basis.

However, that said, not all politics is directly about votes. The BJP, for example, desires not only political control – which it already has, leading the most powerful Union government in decades – but also mass media hegemony. Control of mass media ensures stability, making sure that the possibility of a challenge decreases by creating a deep support base for the BJP’s ideology.

This strategy has seen incredible success in Hindi and English news media. To some extent, this strategy has also produced results in Bollywood, pushing the industry to focus on topics such as mediaeval history and war with Pakistan as seen through a Hindutva lens.

A screengrab from 'Pathaan'.

Struggling for hegemony

However, it is also clear that the BJP lacks hegemony in this space. Strong pockets of media still lie outside the BJP’s control in the states in languages other than Hindi and English (which makes federal politics a challenge for Modi).

Pathaan shows that even in the Hindi sphere, the BJP lacks hegemony. A Shah Rukh Khan can not only make a film which sells an older version of Gandhian secularism, in which India is not exclusively Hindu but a land for all its religions, but even make it a blockbuster.

On January 19, days before Pathaan’s release, Prime Minister Modi himself spoke against his own party’s campaign against films. A template strategy for the BJP under Modi has been for the prime minister to maintain silence even as the party’s middle rung leaders and cadre act on some of the BJP’s more extreme agenda items. That Modi now felt the need to speak up against the ideological attack on Bollywood maybe illustrates that he thought that attacking Khan had backfired and was hurting his own image.


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