India’s Right Wing Tried to Scuttle a Film. Fans Helped It Break Records.

Right-wing groups threatened to block the film’s release. Vigilantes barged into shopping malls and tore down posters for it. Calls for a boycott trended on social media in India, continuing a pattern in which Hindu activists, quick to find offense, try to scuttle shows they dislike.

Yet when “Pathaan” — a spy thriller mashing high-octane action with Bollywood’s colorful tradition of song and dance — was released last week, audiences turned up in huge numbers. Cinemas devastated by the pandemic dusted off “sold-out” signs, and demand remained so strong that theater owners quickly added midnight screenings.

At the end of its first week, “Pathaan” had collected more than $77 million in ticket revenue, its production company, Yash Raj Films, said on Wednesday — a modest amount by Hollywood standards, but a figure that broke a string of Indian box office records.

There was little fundamentally new in the film’s formula to make it an unmissable spectacle, cinema critics said. And analysts warned against reading too much into the audience response as an overwhelming protest against the increasingly emboldened Hindu right wing.

Moviegoers crowding outside a cinema hall to watch the Bollywood-infused thriller “Pathaan” in Mumbai in January.Credit…Sujit Jaiswal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The movie had overcome the adversity for a simple reason: The detractors had taken on the wrong guy at the wrong moment. Shah Rukh Khan, the popular star of “Pathaan,” who at 57 toned his abs to play the titular action hero, just had too wide and crosscutting an appeal to become another easy victim.

Mr. Khan was appearing in the film after a four-year break from the screen. That gap had tested him personally, with his son dragged into legal trouble by the Hindu nationalist government. Drug charges leveled against the son proved unfounded and appeared to be an attempt to vilify Mr. Khan, a symbol both of a more secular India and, in the eyes of the Hindu right, of an industry where Muslims have been an outsize force.

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The star’s re-emergence also came as Hindi-language cinema has struggled to find a working formula following the pandemic’s economic crunch and the expansion of online streaming.

“I think it was this thirst to watch Shah Rukh Khan on the screen again,” said Pramit Chatterjee, a film critic and writer. “There had been a gap, a four-year gap. People saw what Bollywood had to offer, and people understood that we took Shah Rukh Khan for granted.”

The film’s success has injected new energy into Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry. Revenues for Indian cinema overall had shrunk by 85 percent in 2020 and 65 percent in 2021, according to Ormax Media, a consultancy that studies trends in Indian entertainment and media. While the broader Indian film industry rebounded to a great extent in 2022, propelled by the success of several big films from India’s south, Hindi cinema still lagged behind.

“It’s more of a start to a recovery process, because there are more films lined up in Hindi this year which are of equal scale and experience in terms of franchises and big-screen action,” said Shailesh Kapoor, the founder and chief executive of Ormax Media.

Since cinemas reopened after a pandemic hiatus, filmmakers and experts have been watching closely to see how audience behavior has changed — particularly since the lockdowns vastly expanded the reach of online streaming services in India.

What is emerging is “a polarization,” Mr. Kapoor said, in which a handful of larger-spectacle films are likely to account for an ever-rising share of revenues.

Indian actors John Abraham, Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan at a press conference to promote their movie “Pathaan” in Mumbai, India, on Monday.Credit…Rajanish Kakade/Associated Press

“Pathaan,” the latest entry in Yash Raj Films’ spy universe, follows a simple and cautious story line in India’s charged sociopolitical moment: A patriotic spy unquestioning of state policy tries to foil the plots of a rogue fellow agent now under contract by Pakistan, the national archenemy, to devastate an Indian city with a virus.

Most of the film’s messages are subtle, the efforts to walk a delicate line obvious. The calls for a boycott were prompted by something seemingly innocuous — some Hindu right-wing groups found offense in a saffron-colored bikini worn in one scene by the lead actress, Deepika Padukone. Saffron is associated with Hinduism and the Hindu right.

The main villain, while enabled by India’s foreign enemy, is not himself a foreigner, but an Indian with deep personal grievances against the state. The trope of an internal struggle for the soul of India is nudged along with subtle dialogue (interspersed with the self-deprecating charm of an aging hero complaining about joint soreness after fights and the need for painkillers).

The movie’s largest political message, if it has one, is that the hero who saves India is a Muslim in a country whose 200 million religious minorities are increasingly painted by right-wing Hindu groups close to the governing party as outsiders and threats to the nation. (Indian Muslims who trace their lineage to sections of pre-partition India that are today part of Pakistan or Afghanistan are colloquially referred to as “Pathaans.”)

“It’s obviously a mash-up of a lot of things, but at the center of it, they are trying to make sure Shah Rukh Khan comes across as the biggest hero you have seen in the last decade,” Mr. Chatterjee said about the film. “And it absolutely worked.”

The lead-up to the film’s opening was tense. In many cinemas, police officers kept watch. For much of the first day, there were scattered reports of vandalism, cases of vigilante groups barging into movie halls, and arrests of those trying to disrupt the screenings.

“They were shouting ‘wherever the film is screened, we will burn the cinema,’” Lalan Singh, a manager of Deep Prabha Cinema Hall in the state of Bihar, said about a group of protesters who arrived at his venue.

Mr. Singh said he was initially frightened and locked the doors of his office before gathering the courage to confront the protesters and filing a police complaint.

“Now, the hall is full, and people are screaming as if they have never seen a movie before,” Mr. Singh said. “And when the movie ends, everyone starts dancing inside the hall.”

The intensity of the fan craze that Mr. Khan, the lead actor, has sustained over the decades was on display in Mumbai on the film’s opening day.

At the Maratha Mandir cinema — where another of Mr. Khan’s films, released in 1995, continued its run in an 11:30 a.m. slot — the cinema courtyard was abuzz with ticket holders before the doors opened for “Pathaan” in the afternoon.

Workers had put up a sign saying that all three of the afternoon and evening showings were sold out. Mr. Khan’s fan clubs, whose members had traveled hundreds of miles from the southern city of Kochi and the northern city of Lucknow, had decorated the lobby with confetti and posters of their hero. They cut a cake and shared samosas.

“I am first-class, flying high,” Manoj Desai, the cinema’s 72-year-old director, told a reporter on the phone while preparing for the crowd teeming at the doors. “Bollywood is back!”

At Mr. Khan’s sea-facing residence in Mumbai, hundreds of fans thronged outside the gates. The police posted there struggled to contain the crowd and keep the road in front of the mansion open.

On the fourth day of the movie’s release, Mr. Khan — who has largely stayed away from the media in recent years — attended a press event. He alluded to the difficult years for him and his family, and said that the film had faced challenges that “could have curtailed” its release.

But then he turned to the joy the film had brought him.

“I have forgotten the last four years in these last four days,” he said.

Sameer Yasir contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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