Pathaan and the king of cinema blast Bollywood out of the doldrums

For Ganesh Lokhande, an usher at the Regal Cinema in Mumbai’s southern tip of Colaba, it’s been a quiet few years in the job. That was, until last week.

Pathaan, a new Bollywood action thriller starring Shah Rukh Khan – an actor whose superstardom has elevated him to be known in India as “the king” – has been released in cinemas, triggering excitement across the country. Long queues formed outside theatres as millions flocked to catch a glimpse of Khan’s return to the screen after four years away, now aged 57 but still playing the ravishing muscular hero.

“This is the first film I’ve seen get this response in five years. It’s the return of Bollywood,” said Lokhande. Pathaan is now the only film showing at the Regal Cinema, its 1,100-capacity hall packed to the rafters four times a day well into midnight.

His job of trying to keep the crowds under control has proved challenging, as audiences whoop and cheer and sometimes get up to dance on the seats throughout the film. “Even though it’s not allowed, we can’t keep people quiet,” said Lokhande. “When it comes to Shah Rukh Khan, people go crazy.”

Just a week after its release, Pathaan has already broken almost every Bollywood record. It recorded the highest-ever box office collections for a Hindi film on its opening day and second day in India, and raked in 2.5bn rupees (£25m) in its first five days; by Wednesday it had takings over £64m. Analysts expect Pathaan to soon become part of the “1,000 crore club”, an elite group of films that have taken 10bn rupees (£100m) at the box office.

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The release of Pathaan comes at a particularly crucial moment for Bollywood, which for over a year after Covid has been floundering at the box office. Cinema seats were left gathering dust as three-quarters of Hindi-language releases in 2022 flopped and many people opted to watch films on streaming platforms in their own homes. Much was said about the demise of Bollywood, its stale storylines and ageing stars, especially as it coincided with the rising success of non-Hindi films from south India.

But critics agreed that the stars had aligned for Pathaan. Its roaring success has been a great relief to Bollywood, where funding had begun to dry up over concerns films were no longer good investments.

“It has pumped up everyone in the industry,” Anil Kapoor, one of Bollywood’s best-known stars, said. “As soon as I saw the film, I called the producers and predicted it would make 1,000 crores [10bn rupees]. I was called crazy but look at the numbers already. For me, it’s too exciting. I feel like it’s my own film that’s been a hit.”

Often described as the biggest star in the world, Khan broke through in 1995 with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, a love story still so beloved it continues to play daily in a Mumbai cinema more than three decades later. Over the course of dozens of films and endless TV interviews, Khan has become rooted in the Indian public imagination as the ideal romantic hero.

Shah Rukh Khan.
Shah Rukh Khan. Photograph: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

“Khan represents economic mobility and a departure from the stuffy stoic mode of traditional masculinity,” said Shrayana Bhattacharya, whose recent book Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh Khan explored the complexities of female economic mobility in India through the prism of Khan fandom.

“He has always portrayed fragility and vulnerability, even in his negative roles or action films. He is a member of so many people’s memories and milestones.”

His cross-generational appeal was demonstrated by the crowds who flocked to Pathaan in Mumbai, the beating heart of Bollywood: groups of schoolchildren mingled with chattering grey-haired “aunties”, young mothers and smartly dressed men and women who had come straight from the office.

Moviegoers queue to watch Pathaan at a cinema hall in Mumbai.
Moviegoers queue to watch Pathaan at a cinema hall in Mumbai. Photograph: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

Vihaana Mahtani, 23, said the film was everything she had hoped for. “It’s great to have him back,” she said. “The action scenes were really good and he’s still looking so good. There’s so much about him: his personality, the way he speaks in the films, his aura, everything. There’s no one else like him in Bollywood.”

Abdul Sattar, 72, was accompanied by his 17-year-old granddaughter Namra, a self-confessed Khan superfan. “He’s so handsome,” she said with a blush. Sattar added: “It was a bit violent for me but the people are mad about him. There’s some political agenda against him but he’s above it all.”

The success of Pathaan has been deemed all the more remarkable for the forces working against it. Weeks before its release, the film joined the growing ranks of Bollywood projects targeted for boycott by rightwing Hindu groups after controversy erupted over a music video for the film’s main song, Besharam Rang, featuring Khan’s co-star Deepika Padukone in an orange bikini.

Hardline groups claimed the bikini was saffron, the colour associated with Hinduism, and said the music video was “vulgar” and offended Hindu sensibilities. Members of the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) joined in the boycott calls, and the BJP home minister of Madhya Pradesh threatened to bar the movie from his state.

This is not the first film starring Khan to incur the anger of Hindu rightwingers. As hardline religious nationalism has taken hold in India, Bollywood as a secular bastion has increasingly been under attack. Its three biggest stars, Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan – not related to each other but popularly known as the “trinity of Khans” – all happen to be Muslim and have increasingly been hit with boycotts and online trolling which often refers to Bollywood as “Urduwood”, a derogatory term referring to Urdu as the language of Muslims.

Khan is one of the few Bollywood stars who has openly spoken about rising intolerance in India, albeit in muted terms, and subsequently has become a particular target for the Hindu right wing. In 2013, Yogi Adityanath, now the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, compared Khan to a Pakistani terrorist and called for a boycott of his films so he would have to wander on streets like a “normal Muslim”. Last year, Khan’s son found himself caught up in a trumped-up drug case.

“There’s been so much hatred pouring out on to Bollywood for the past two years, all these unsubstantiated allegations that the industry and those in it are morally questionable,” said Namrata Joshi, an Indian film critic and author. “The polarisation and divisions growing in our society have seeped into Bollywood, which has never happened before. But I think the success of Pathaan shows that audiences don’t necessarily buy into these vindictive narratives.”

In the run-up to the film’s release the cast and crew of Pathaan actively avoided media interactions, but in their place Khan’s vibrant and diehard fanbase rolled into action, organising screenings and mobilising online, building a well-coordinated and unstoppable hype. “I think the boycott brigade met their match in the Shah Rukh Khan fanbase,” said Joshi.

Nowhere is the devotion to Khan more evident than at his palatial seafront residence in Mumbai, where every day hundreds gather hoping to catch a glimpse. On Sunday, after Pathaan’s explosive opening, Khan stood on top of the gates and addressed the adoring crowd.

“He is a self-made man, that’s why I love him,” said Swaliha Parveen, 32, as she looked up at the house. “He is so romantic. When I think of love, I think of Shah Rukh Khan.”