Members of Shiv Sena Hind protest against Aamir Khan’s new film in India’s northern state of Punjab [Photo courtesy Ishant Sharma]

New Delhi, India – In early August, Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, made a public declaration of love for India designed to counter a virtual campaign being waged against him and his latest film.

“I want to assure everyone, I really love [my] country. So please don’t boycott my films,” Khan told a group of journalists on August 1, 10 days before the release of Laal Singh Chaddha, a remake of Hollywood’s Forrest Gump starring Khan and directed by Advait Chandan.

The statement came after #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha had been trending on Twitter for weeks.

Led by handles predominantly belonging to upper-caste Hindus, the boycott posts, videos and messages – many of them blatantly Islamophobic – were amplified by thousands of anonymous handles, mostly aligned with the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu-first, majoritarian ideology.

Some alleged that Khan, a Muslim, was anti-Hindu. They cited his 2014 film, PK, where he played an alien who lands in India and is confounded by how the devout are exploited in the name of religion.

Others dredged up old clips of Khan, including one from November 2015 when he spoke of a rising sense of “insecurity, fear and despondency” because of growing mob violencelynchings of Muslims, religious intolerance, and the lack of a response from the BJP government, in power since 2014, or the police.

The general consensus in Bollywood is that no controversy can keep India’s cinema-crazy audience away from a film if they want to watch it, and Khan, 57, is one of its most bankable stars.

His 2016 film Dangal (Wrestling Competition), about a father who trains his two young daughters to wrestle, remains the highest-grossing Indian film, at home and abroad. PK is listed as the seventh-highest-grossing Indian film.

Laal Singh Chaddha, a film with a budget of $22m to $25m, has been in the making since 2018 and was expected to bring cheer to Bollywood, which has been struggling financially since the COVID pandemic.

But the box office verdict was unanimous: The film is Khan’s biggest flop.

Due to poor audience figures, theatres across the country reportedly dropped about 1,300 screenings of the film soon after its release and replaced it with other films, including Karthikeya 2, a small Telugu-language film dubbed in Hindi.

“The expectation was that it would make $25m from its theatrical run of three to four weeks in India, of which the major chunk comes in the first week. But its total recovery is not going to cross $16-17m,” Sanjay Mehta, a film exhibitor and distributor, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a shocker for the industry.”

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