Mumbai: India’s twin obsessions of cricket and Bollywood are at the heart of a bitter row that has broken out between the country’s top film star and a radical right-wing party in the movie capital Mumbai.
The dispute, which has seen the ultra Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena party threatening to scupper the release of Shah Rukh Khan’s latest blockbuster, has its roots in a diplomatic spat over the Indian Premier League (IPL).
No Pakistani player was bought by the eight IPL clubs during an auction last month for this year’s edition of the Twenty20 cricket tournament, despite the Pakistan team being the reigning world champions in the format.
The perceived snub triggered widespread protests in Pakistan with effigies of IPL chief Lalit Modi being burnt on the streets of Lahore, condemnation from politicians and threats of boycotts from other Pakistani sports teams.
Khan, whose parents were born in what is now Pakistan and who co-owns one of the IPL franchises, the Kolkata Knight Riders, later said he regretted the controversy and supported the inclusion of Pakistani players.
“Pakistan is a great neighbour to have. We are great neighbours. They are good neighbours. Let us love each other,” he said.
The Shiv Sena, a habitual source of anti-Pakistan rhetoric, reacted furiously to the comments.
“Shah Rukh should go to Pakistan if he wants to speak in favour of Pakistani players,” said Shiv Sena leader Anil Parab, who led a demonstration outside Khan’s Mumbai residence.
Activists in the party’s power base of Mumbai tore down posters for the Muslim actor’s upcoming film “My Name is Khan” and said they would target any cinema in India showing the movie unless he retracted his remarks.
Given the Shiv Sena’s reputation for violence, the threat has been taken seriously by the state government of Maharashtra.
“Action will be taken against those who disrupt the screening of the movie. No one will be allowed to take the law into their own hands,” a government statement said.
Multiplex owners said they would review security conditions before deciding on the number of screens to devote to the movie, which will be released on 12 February.
“We will go ahead with the screening, but we will look at the situation as it develops. If additional security is required, we will take it,” said a spokeswoman for Inox Leisure, which has cinemas in 21 Indian cities.
Devang Sampat, senior vice-president of marketing with Cinemax India, which operates 74 theatres in and around Mumbai, said they had yet to decide on screening the film.
“It is too early,” Sampat said.
The Shiv Sena has a history of run-ins with the Bollywood film industry.
In 1998, party activists ransacked theatres showing the lesbian-themed film “Fire” by acclaimed director Deepa Mehta, and a year later they launched a campaign against legendary Muslim Bollywood star Dilip Kumar after he was presented with Pakistan’s highest civilian award.
Despite the Shiv Sena threats, Shah Rukh Khan has so far resolutely refused to apologise for backing the participation of Pakistani players in the IPL.
“As an Indian I’m not ashamed, guilty or unhappy about what I said, neither am I sorry,” he said during a promotional tour in New York on Tuesday.
“You can only say what you believe in and stand by it,” he added, while criticising the stance of the Shiv Sena as “unhealthy, undemocratic and insensitive.”
In “My Name is Khan,” the star actor plays an autistic Muslim man living in San Francisco who falls in love with a Hindu woman. The impact of the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the relationship is one of the film’s main themes.