Movie star hit at box office over cricket row

Bollywood star attacked after denouncing exclusion of Pakistanis from League
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The Independent Online

One of India's biggest film stars faces a backlash from right-wing Hindu nationalists for insisting that Pakistani cricketers should take part in a forthcoming international tournament.

Posters of the Bollywood legend Shahrukh Khan's new movie have been torn down and activists have demonstrated outside his house after he said the exclusion of Pakistani players in the auction for the Indian Premier League (IPL) was wrong. With Mumbai's cinemas reportedly nervous about showing the film My Name Is Khan, its release could be delayed – potentially losing huge sums at the box office.

The agitation against the Muslim actor, who is also a producer and television presenter, has been led by the far-right political party Shiv Sena. It was angered by comments Khan made when the IPL auction ended without a single Pakistani player being selected for this year's tournament, despite many of them being members of last year's world championship winning side.

There were claims that the team's owners had not wanted to anger the Indian government, whose relationship with Pakistan is still tense following the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008. The Shiv Sena claims to fight for the rights of people in the state of Maharashtra, and has long been associated with campaigns of violence and intimidation.

It called upon Khan to leave India if he felt this way. "Shahrukh should go to Pakistan if he wants to speak in favour of Pakistani players," said Anil Parab, the leader of Shiv Sena.

As posters of My Name Is Khan were torn down across Mumbai, the group said it would prevent the film being released in India's commercial and entertainment capital.

Cinema managers have expressed fears that they will be unable to show the film until the row dies down. "We cannot release the film and put our audience under threat unless the matter is resolved," one unnamed official told the Indian Express newspaper.

The controversy has highlighted the power held in Mumbai and the surrounding state of Maharashtra by groups such as the Shiv Sena, headed by Bal Thackeray, and its offshoot the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which is led by Mr Thackeray's nephew, Raj.

Last year, Amitabh Bachchan, the actor revered as India's biggest ever movie star, was forced to apologise to the MNS after his wife said she preferred to address an awards ceremony in Hindi rather than Marathi, the local language of Maharashtra.

Indeed, in a recent blog post, Bachchan spoke of his affection for Bal Thackeray saying: "He is resolute and firm as ever and in that resoluteness you discover an endearing... sudden, soft moment which has always made his presence so strong and affectionate."

Indu Mirani, a Bollywood analyst based in Mumbai, said the film industry often gave in to threats from such groups in order not to lose money, especially on a film's crucial opening weekend.

"These groups exert a lot of pressure. What can you do? You don't want your home threatened, your children attacked or your film not allowed to open," she added.

""It is not that Bollywood agrees with them but they do not want the distraction. It is like swatting a fly and then moving on."

For now Khan, the 44-year-old star of such films as Chak De India and Om Shanti Om, is not backing down. Speaking in America, where is promoting his new US-based movie, he said: "It makes me feel that activities like this are unhealthy, undemocratic. It is insensitive but this is the world is and you can only say what you believe in and stand by it and, hopefully, I will have the strength to do so."