A few weeks before the release of Bollywood star Aamir Khan's ambitious remake of the Oscar-winning 1994 drama Forrest Gump, the hashtag #BoycottLalSinghChaddha began to gain popularity on social media.
Widely shared was a clip from an interview that Khan, one of Bollywood's most successful stars, did in 2015. In the interview, the actor spoke about his concern for the rising cases of violence against minorities in India — including cases of Muslims being lynched for the consumption of beef.
“As an individual, as part of this country as a citizen, we read in the papers what is happening, we see it on the news and certainly, I have been alarmed. I can’t deny. I have been alarmed by a number of incidents,” he said, speaking at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards that year.
“When I chat with Kiran [Rao, his wife at the time] at home, she says ‘Should we move out of India?’ That’s a disastrous and big statement for Kiran to make. She fears for her child. She fears about what the atmosphere around us will be. She feels scared to open the newspapers every day."
Khan's comments sparked a backlash then, especially with members and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP.
"This country has made you Aamir Khan," tweeted actor Anupam Kher, an ardent supporter of Modi.
Khan was forced to stress his patriotism, a key tenet of the BJP and its supporters.
"Let me state categorically that neither I, nor my wife Kiran, have any intention of leaving the country. We never did, and nor would we like to in the future," he wrote on Facebook a few days later.
"Anyone implying the opposite has either not seen my interview or is deliberately trying to distort what I have said. India is my country, I love it, I feel fortunate for being born here, and this is where I am staying."
Khan, who has since left social media, was again forced to reiterate his love for India last week as calls for the boycott of his latest film spread.
"I feel sad that some of the people believe that I am someone who doesn't like India," he told local media. "That's not the case. Please don't boycott my film. Please watch my film."
He bought the rights of Forrest Gump in 2018 to make Laal Singh Chaddha, which also features actress Kareena Kapoor Khan, Telugu star Naga Chaitanya as well as a cameo by superstar Shah Rukh Khan. The film faced several productions owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and was finally released on Thursday.
Khan's ex-wife, filmmaker Kiran Rao, is one of the producers of the film. The couple, who separated last year, have a son, Azad, together.
"Aamir Khan married two Hindu Women, yet named his kids Junaid, Azad & Ira. Kareena married a Muslim & promptly named her kids Taimur & Jehangir. That's enough reasons to boycott Laal Singh Chaddha," reads one widely-shared tweet, which also uses a derogatory term coined by Hindu nationalists who accuse Muslim men of marrying Hindu women and forcing them to convert.
"Continue our boycott of every Khan movie and anti-national actors and anti-Hindu movies," said another tweet.
Released in 1994, Forrest Gump went on to sweep the Oscars, taking six awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Tom Hanks. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Eric Roth based on Winston Groom’s novel, the film is about a man with a low IQ who's also mathematically gifted and who witnesses key points and meets figures of US history, such as the Vietnam War, presidents and Elvis Presley.
Khan takes on the role of the titular character in Laal Singh Chaddha, which includes converting the classic line “Run, Forrest, run” into “Run, Laal, run”.
“I just remember seeing it a couple of times in a short span, and it had a deep impact on me. I loved the character of Forrest. I loved the way Tom played the part as well. And it’s a film that stayed with me," Khan told the Associated Press.
Big changes have been made to root Laal Singh Chaddha in Indian history and culture. Laal, for instance, does not think life is like a box of chocolates, he instead quotes his mother talking about golgappas — the hollow deep-fried flatbread snack with fillings, enjoyed with spiced water.
"My momma used to say life is like a box of chocolates: you never know which one you would get," has been translated to "My mama used to say that life is like a golgappa: your stomach gets full, but your heart desires more."
With Bollywood's weak collections so far at the box office, it is now up to Khan to prove that he still has the power to bring back crowds to the cinema.
Raksha Bandhan, a family drama led by another star Akshay Kumar, is also being released on the same day as Laal Singh Chaddha.
— Additional reporting by AP and AFP
Scroll through the gallery for stills from Akshay Kumar's Bollywood film 'Raksha Bandhan'