India's censors seek changes to Shah Rukh Khan film after swimsuit row

Right-wing Hindu groups protested about a song sequence featuring an actress in a saffron swimsuit

Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan returns to acting in the film Pathaan after a four-year break. AFP
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India’s film censorship board has sparked outrage among stars and fans by seeking changes to an upcoming film featuring Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan that upset right-wing Hindu groups with a song sequence that shows an actress dancing in a saffron-coloured monokini.

Saffron is a colour often worn by Hindu holy men as well as lay followers of the religion. Over the years the colour has become associated with Hindutva — the doctrine espoused by Hindu supremacist groups.

The Central Board of Film Certification on Thursday advised the production company, Yash Raj Films, to make amendments to some portions of the film Pathaan and to the film’s songs.

Pathaan marks the return to the silver screen by Khan, 57, after a gap of four years. The spy action thriller, which also stars Deepika Padukone and John Abraham, is scheduled for release in India on January 25.

But the film has been embroiled in controversy ever since the release of the song Besharam Rang — meaning "shameless colour" — from its soundtrack.

Hindu right-wing groups and politicians say the film sequence for Besharam Rang, in which Padukone wears the saffron swimsuit while dancing with Khan, is an insult to their faith.

Narottam Mishra, a member of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and a minister in the Madhya Pradesh state government, threatened to ban Pathaan over the “highly objectionable” song sequence, which he said was shot with a “dirty mindset”.

Members of the right-wing groups burnt effigies of the film's stars and tore down its posters at theatres during protests across the country.

Vishnu Gupta, who heads the right-wing group Hindu Sena, said Padukone had "insulted saffron, the colour worn by our monks".

“If the film is released without removal of the song, it will not be allowed to run, there will be a protest,” Mr Gupta told The National.

Mr Gupta welcomed the censorship board’s call for changes in the film but many believe it to be a manufactured controversy to target Khan and Bollywood, the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry that has of late found itself in the crosshairs of the Hindu right.

Veteran actor Asha Parekh said the latest controversy reflects the “closed-mindedness” of people.

“A film’s sole purpose is entertainment. Now if an actress wears orange then you will ban it? I feel like we are shutting down our minds because we are becoming too close-minded, which is wrong. Bollywood has always been a soft target,” Ms Parekh, 80, told a news channel.

Pahlaj Nihalani, a former chairman of the censorship board, said a film could not be targeted over a colour and suggested that it was done under the government’s pressure.

“This is completely targeted at Khan and there is a pressure of public. CBFC must have got the call from the government to take care of the controversy.

"They’re purposely doing this to stall the film but they can’t ask them to bring the revised version after clearing it at the first place. There is neither a rule of asking makers for film's revision and sending it back after certification, nor any rule on the colours of the dress to be followed by actors,” Mr Nihalani told The National.

“It is ridiculous that this is happening in the industry,” he said.

Fans have also called the board's actions absurd and a harassment of the actors and filmmakers.

“The political and religious agenda is completely irrelevant to movies. It’s high time we give people some creative independence and understand that movies are only for entertainment,” Bhumika Sood, a banker, told The National.

Bollywood, which churns out more than 1,000 films a year, has always been a target for politicians whose attacks in recent years have become more frequent and even superstars are not spared.

India's Hindu right accuses Bollywood of having mafia and Islamic extremist connections and spreading the same ideology through films, particularly those involving Muslim actors.

They claim Bollywood films are anti-Hindu and encourage "love jihad" — a right-wing conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men lure young girls to convert them to Islam — and that the industry promotes nepotism and Urdu, a language associated with Muslims.

Earlier this year, the actor Aamir Khan came under fire after right-wing groups alleged that his film Laal Singh Chaddha, a remake of Forrest Gump, mocked Hindu deities and demanded that it be banned.

Ms Padukone was targeted previously for playing the role of a queen in a period drama, Padmavati, that some right-wing groups said distorted history. She has also declared her support for anti-government student protesters, drawing the right-wing’s ire.

Prasoon Joshi, the chairman of the board of censors, said on Thursday that it was trying to strike a balance between the sensibilities of audiences and creative expression.

“We have stayed true to this spirit in the certification of the film Pathaan … I am telling again that our culture and faith is grand, complex and subtle. In such a situation, it should be kept in mind that we should not do such a thing due to which we are unnecessarily dragged into any dispute,” Mr Joshi said.

On Friday, the release of the first Pakistani film to be shown in India in more than a decade appeared to have been cancelled.

Maula Jatt, starring Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan — two hugely popular actors in India, was scheduled for limited release in Punjab state and Delhi but faced protests from politicians and right-wing Hindu groups.

There was no official statement as to why the film did not open as scheduled.

Pakistani artists have been a huge draw for Bollywood for decades, but they have been banned by artists' unions from performing in the country after militant attacks in Kashmir that India blamed on Pakistan-backed insurgents.

Updated: December 30, 2022, 6:02 PM