MUMBAI // Cinemas in India's entertainment capital, Mumbai, resembled virtual fortresses yesterday as security was beefed up to combat threats from Shiv Sena, a radical Hindu group, to disrupt the release of the latest Bollywood blockbuster film My name is Khan. Despite the threats and thorough frisking, Bollywood aficionados turned up in large numbers to watch the film, which received its world premier in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
"My biggest fear is not the Shiv Sena, but that the film won't be released," said Puja Bedi, a former Bollywood actress, who was turned away from the Fun Cinemas multiplex not because of the protests, but because all the tickets had been sold. "I am so glad the film has released to a full house. We need not fear anyone." The film, starring Bollywood's biggest star, Shah Rukh Khan, opened to packed houses at many of Mumbai's 13 multiplex theatres, but several small cinema owners around India gave it a miss, fearing Shiva Sena's protesters might vandalise their properties.
More than 11,000 police had been deployed in the city and most cinemas were fitted with night-vision CCTV. At some theatres, police baton-charged protesters. The film, popularly known as MNIK, is about an autistic Muslim man who suffers racial prjudice in the United States after September 11. Although it was applauded in Abu Dhabi last week, back home, in India, it has been the catalyst for a rare collision between Bollywood, sport and politics. The controversy, which began two weeks ago, had nothing to do with the content of the film, however, but the comments of its star, Mr Khan, who is a Muslim.
Mr Khan had lamented the exclusion of Pakistani cricket players from a forthcoming tournament in India, to which the Shiv Sena took offence. The group demanded an apology and public retraction of his comments. But Mr Khan has refused, following which Shiv Sena took aim at the film. The stand off, which has resonated around India, is symptomatic of insular politics plaguing Mumbai, which could hurt the city's cosmopolitan image, analysts say.
"It is ironic and sad that a film made for world peace has led to so much angst in my own house, my city, my country," Mr Khan, currently showcasing the film in Berlin, wrote on Twitter. "I don't want mayhem anger and violence because of our beautiful film, which talks about repairing a bruised and divided world." But the Shiv Sena has rigidly maintained its stance. "Doesn't Shah Rukh Khan know that if Shiv Sena demands that he must apologise, then he must apologise?" said Manohar Joshi, a senior leader.
Other Bollywood personalities have supported Mr Khan. "Friday's are always fraught with tension - it's the day of release. This Friday, that tension has spread across the industry," Priyanka Chopra, a Bollywood actress wrote in a column in the Hindustan Times. "I hope you will go and catch the film. We have to stand up for what's right." Many observers see Shiv Sena's campaign against Mr Khan as a clever ruse to resuscitate its sagging political fortunes. The popularity of this ultranationalist political party has been waning in recent years, especially after its humiliating electoral losses in recent parliamentary and state elections.
Bal Thackeray, its founder and chief, known more popularly as Balasaheb, rose to prominence after mooting the sons-of-the-soil agenda in the late 1960s, campaigning against the growing influence of non-Marathis in the state, mainly economic migrants from southern India. Over time, Balasaheb, once a cartoonist with a popular Mumbai daily, emerged as the benefactor of the local Marathi commoner, colloquially called Marathi Manoos. He aggressively pushed a "Maharashtra for Marathis" agenda, perceived widely as a blinkered agenda in a pluralistic society. Over the past four decades, his identity has been subsumed by a divisive, ultranationalist brand of politics. He made headlines for his rabid hate-spewing speeches against "outsiders" and his below-the-belt comments against his political adversaries.
Uddhav Thackeray, his son and heir apparent, who instigated the recent tirade against Mr Khan, dabbles in the same kind of politics - of regional polarisation - that catapulted his father to prominence. Many observers have vehemently criticised him for going after a Bollywood actor, while ignoring many burning issues affecting ordinary citizens of his state. "It's sad that the state's police has to be used for protecting cinema halls, rather than to fighting terrorists and Naxalites [Maoist rebels]," said Ashok Chavan, Maharashtra's chief minister.
* The National