Anger Against Pathaan: Explained

Anger Against Pathaan: Explained

by Swati Goel Sharma and Jayasri Vishwanathan - Dec 23, 2022 03:34 PM +05:30 IST
Anger Against Pathaan: ExplainedA still from the song 'Besharam Rang' in upcoming movie Pathaan.
  • Besharam Rang’, which is supposed to be a glimpse into what the film 'Pathaan' may offer, has offended many groups including Muslim organisations.

    The film has stirred a social as well as a political controversy, and here are the reasons summed up in five points.

There is public anger against the upcoming film Pathaan, featuring Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and John Abraham in the lead, and produced by Yash Raj Films. 

The anger is not unprecedented or unexpected as several films from Bollywood have met with similar response from the public of late, but in the case of Pathaan it is also turning into a polarising issue among political parties and their supporters. 

While some leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have given statements criticising the film's songs and appealing to the public to not watch the movie, Shah Rukh Khan himself was recently seen commenting on “negativity” on social media in the presence of Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a rival of the BJP.

Public resentment again Pathaan began with a release of its song, grew with the actors’ anonymous troll armies on social media indulging in abuses to counter the criticism, turned into full-blown outrage against the film’s actors in the online ‘boycott Pathaan’ trends, and is now spilling on streets with demonstrations and public appeals to boycott the film.

For those yet clueless about why the film has stirred a social as well as a political controversy, here are the reasons summed up in five points.

One: Charge That The Promotional Song Demeans Women, 'Insults Saffron'

Let’s start with why the song ‘Besharam Rang’, which is supposed to be a glimpse into what the film may offer, has offended many groups including Muslim organisations.

The song has been criticised for many reasons. Critics say it offers nothing original in terms of creativity, has cheap lyrics and vulgar choreography, and the idea of a woman in racy clothes suggestively dancing in front of a man 20 years older than her demeans women.

Many have described the song as “soft porn”. 

What additionally enraged people is the choice of outfits worn by Padukone. She changes into three outfits during the song, the final one being a saffron-coloured bikini. Donning a colour important to many Hindus, she croons about giving up righteousness and falls into the arms of Khan.

Critics say the song is promoting the idea that a Hindu woman would thoughtlessly leave everything behind to fall for a Muslim man even if much older than her — something that several Bollywood films have been promoting of late, including Laxmii, Toofaan and Atrangi Re

This is despite growing cases of the pattern of crimes where men from the Muslim community trap non-Muslim women, especially Hindus, for relationships, for their conversion or sexual exploitation, often killing them if they resist.

The pattern of this targeting was given the name ‘love jihad’ by Christian organisations in Kerala more than a decade ago, but is now used by Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jain groups alike.

Moreover, let’s face it — women in Afghanistan, where Pashtuns (Pathans) are the largest ethnic tribe, can’t even reveal their faces publicly let alone gyrate in a bikini. Gun-wielding Pathans of the Taliban roam the streets, terrorising women into shuttle-cock burqas.

There is no way that a Pathan will sit around looking smug when his woman is dancing suggestively in public while wearing revealing outfits. Afghan women are known to suffer multiple forms of gender-based violence and human rights violations.

Why mislead, then? If Khan and his squad wanted to make a film on the Pashtun community, they could have done a more honest job of representing women, critics say. 

Among those who have asked for a ban or revision of the song is the Madhya Pradesh Ulema Board.

The board’s president Syed Anas Ali told the media, "The Pathans are one of the most respectable Muslim communities. Not just the Pathans but the entire Muslim community is being defamed in this film. The name of the film is 'Pathaan' and women are seen performing obscene dances in it. Pathans are being portrayed wrongly in the film.”

Two: Conduct Of Khan’s Fan Army On Social Media 

Soon after social media users began criticising the song, anonymous fan accounts of Shah Rukh Khan started countering the criticism by indulging in abuses, and posting morphed versions of a picture from the song to insult Hindu monks.

The morphed pictures show Padukone’s face replaced with that of Yogi Adityanath and Sadhvi Prachi, among others.

Yogi Adityanath, besides being Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, is Mahant (head priest) of Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur, and is seen wearing a loose saffron garment at all times; so does Sadhvi Prachi, who too is an ascetic besides being a vocal member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. 

The fan accounts also used the picture to signify sexual assault and threaten rape of the critics.

Many accounts deactivated themselves after Meerut Police in Uttar Pradesh directed the cyber cell to take action.

This behaviour of Khan’s fan accounts triggered greater anger towards the film, more so as Khan has boasted about his fan army on social media, saying, “If you mess with me, my fans will troll you”, and “Mess with me again and I will get you completely destroyed on social media”.

Khan and Yogi Adityanath also have a history. In 2016, when Khan made his infamous “extreme intolerance” comment about Indians, Yogi Adityanath, who was then a Member of Parliament, said the language of Khan was similar to that of (Pakistani terrorist) Hafiz Saeed, and added, “Shah Rukh Khan should remember that if a huge mass in society boycotts his films, he will also have to wander on streets like a normal Muslim.”

Three: Disproportionate Glorification Of One Ethnic Group And Shah Rukh Khan’s Constant Boasting Of His ‘Pathan’ Identity 

Why the extremely multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural population of India should celebrate one group disproportionately compared to others, people have asked. 

A positive portrayal of Pathan men goes back a long way in Bollywood, beginning perhaps from 1946 when Prithviraj Kapoor staged a play titled Pathan. The play told a fictional story of a Pathan man sacrificing his only son to save a Hindu man’s son during partition riots.

The titular character was named ‘Sher Khan’, which was repeated for an iconic Pathan character in film Zanjeer (1973). The film released a year after the partition of Pakistan to form Bangladesh, in a war where, even Shashi Tharoor admitted, “most of the subcontinent’s Pathans were on the other side of India.”

The play itself had come at a time when men from the Pathan community were indulging in large-scale killings of Hindu and Sikh men, and abduction of their women in the run-up to partition of India, in Pathan-dominated areas of North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) as well as Bengal. 

This questionable trend seems to continue with the upcoming film, which comes at a time when the image of Pathans in real life is at a low yet again with the re-rise of Taliban.

Let’s now talk about Shah Rukh Khan. He routinely describes himself as a “Pathan” and a “Peshawari” (Peshawar is capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, close to the Afghanistan border). He is constantly seen rooting for Pakistani cricket players and actors to perform and earn in India.

Last year, when his son Aryan Khan was granted bail by the Bombay High Court after being embroiled in a drug scandal, the actor said this to the media: “I am a Pathan, I am very protective about my family.”

(Please note that Khan’s claims of Pathan ancestry have been refuted by his own extended family living in Peshawar, which can be read here and here, but it is not the theme of this article.)

This identity marker — “Peshwari Pathan” — is a reminder of a painful history as far as Hindus are concerned. 

Muslims were at least four times the number of Hindus and Sikhs (figures from 1881 census), and Pathans were the largest ethnic group in the region that came to be later called as NWFP, till the Sikh rule in 1834. It lasted till 1849, when the British East India Company began its rule.

The British rule ended with the 1947 partition, marked by large-scale communal violence between the majority Muslims and minority Hindus & Sikhs. 

Author Gurbachan Singh Talib recorded several such murders and sexual crimes in NWFP in his book Muslim League Attack on Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab 1947. Members of the Pathan community carried out many of these atrocities, Talib wrote.

An excerpt from the book (page 211): 

“While in the town of Peshawar some, even though very inadequate police and other protection could be looked forward to by the minorities, in the smaller towns and in the countryside none whatever could be had. There, Hindus and Sikhs were simply waylaid and killed, or their houses attacked, and their property and womenfolk carried away. Where the men were not killed, they were forcibly converted."

"Thousands of such forced converts were seen after their evacuation by the military in Amritsar and other cities of the Punjab. Pitiable indeed was their plight. They were mostly living in twos or threes in villages scattered all over the Frontier Province, doing retail shopkeeping or tilling small patches of land. They were turned out of their houses. In most cases the Sikhs-and even old men of seventy were not spared this-were shaved and made to look like Muslims. Many were circumcised. Almost all were forced to swallow beef.”

In an earlier clash in 1910, the majority community in Peshawar gave the slogan “Maro Hindu ko” (kill Hindus). Many Hindu families migrated to Punjab out of fear for their lives. 

Not only in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pakistan side of Punjab, members of the Pathan community are also recorded to have unleashed brutality on Hindus in Bengal out of religious hate. 

Former governor of Tripura, Tathagata Roy, wrote that then prime minister of Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, had made civil officer Niaz Mohammed Khan recruit many Pathans and Punjabi Muslims to the police force. 

Bengal at that time was about 42 per cent Hindu. 

In their book, 1946: The Great Calcutta Killings and Noakhali Genocide, authors Dinesh Chandra Sinha and Ashok Dasgupta recorded many instances of violence perpetrated by members of the Pathan community as policemen, including when they burnt down a Hindu colony (page 15), raided a Hindu house and molested women (page 161), shot down inmates after barging into a house (page 167) and shot a Hindu passerby on the street to death.

A piece in Swarajya earlier has pointed out that despite such a violent and communal history, Bollywood has made films after films to eulogise Pathans, at the same time maligning native groups such as Brahmin, Baniya and Rajput castes by creating negative stereotypes.

Like Shah Rukh Khan, several Bollywood A-listers link their heritage to Pashtun tribes, most important being the Kapoor family.

Today, in both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan, where Pathans dominate, the Hindu and Sikh population has become close to zero. 

Four: Lead Actress’s Open Support To Pro-Leftist Groups And Anti-BJP-RSS Chants

Padukone stood with Communist groups at Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2020 in their protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a humanitarian law to ease citizenship for persecuted religious minorities in Islamic Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

She also stood there while the Communist groups raised slogans against the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Singh (RSS) and the BJP, stating her political ideology clearly even if she did not say anything. Several leaders of the BJP called a boycott of Padukone’s films even at that time. 

The CAA and BJP supporters are among those who are appealing the public to not watch her film now.

Five: The Growing Anti-Bollywood Sentiment 

Bollywood is in a crisis. The back-to-back failure of large-budgeted, high-profile films such as 83, Jersey, Bachchan Pandey, Heropanti 2, Shamshera, Samrat Prithviraj, Thank God and Brahmastra has been noticed by all. People are generally disappointed with the quality of films offered to them and film celebrities behaving condescendingly. 

Some A-listers have made haughty comments about not needing an audience for their films. Their comments have backfired. 

Pathaan seeks success in a film industry that is already neck-deep in troubled waters.

Read more about this in an earlier piece in Swarajya titled 'The Demise of Bollywood,' here

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