Reclaiming Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan style

Sudhir Kothari, 36, a financial analyst and adviser based in the southern Indian city of Chennai, has ordered a special five-kilogramme (11-pound) choco-truffle cake, garlands and booked dhol (drum) players. The T-shirts, badges and wristbands that he had ordered arrived in time and Rohini Silver Screens theatre has allowed him to erect a 7.4-metre (25-foot) cutout of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan for the special 9am “First Day, First Show” of Dunki, Khan’s new film that releases worldwide on Thursday.

A diehard “SKRian”, as Khan’s fans call themselves, Kothari told Al Jazeera that in 2013, three to four days after “SRK sir started following me, I turned my personal Twitter account into a fan club.” Today his handle, SRKChennaiFC, has 167,600 followers.

Kothari, who prefers the appellation “The Only Fan SRK Follows” to his own name, and has written a book of the same title, was busy until late Wednesday evening overseeing the arrangements at the theatre, booked for SRK fans after submitting a support letter from SRK’s production team. After garlanding and pouring milk over Khan’s cutout, they will light fireworks and dance.

Inside the 550-seater theatre, too, they will dance, cut the cake and post videos on their handles with rapturous adjectives and hashtags like #DunkiReview, meant to tickle the interest of prospective ticket buyers.

In all likelihood, Khan, who has 43.9 million followers on X and follows 74 people, of whom five are fan accounts, will acknowledge the celebration videos with a sweet thanks and #Dunki.

Yash Paryani, the admin of SRK Universe, Khan’s biggest fan club which has 3.2 million followers on Facebook, tweeted that for December 21, fans are organising “1,000+ first day, first shows in 65 countries”.

Rishil Jogani, who said he is part of “a small group of admins of Khan’s fan clubs that takes some big decisions”, told Al Jazeera that “these numbers are not 100 percent accurate,” but fans and fan clubs post them because “euphoria is very contagious. There is FOMO [fear of missing out] and it motivates people to book tickets.”

All the fans Al Jazeera spoke with said that they “don’t get a penny” or any free tickets, and they do all this out of their love for Khan, hoping for one end result: “For SRK films to do wonders and for him to be happy”.Dunki, unlike Khan’s two multi-star, action-packed hits released earlier this year, is riding mostly on Khan’s shoulders and will test his box-office clout. To prepare for that, he has spent months marketing it in a way that resembles the election campaign style of India’s governing right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the very party he has had several run-ins with in the past. But it is not clear if all this effort will pay off this time.

His two films — Pathaan, which was released in January this year, and, Jawan [Soldier], in September — were blockbuster hits, and have made it to the top 10 highest-grossing Indian films ever. With Dunki, industry insiders said, Khan is hoping to score a hat-trick.

The year of Khan’s last box-office hit, 2015, was also the year when he called out rising religious intolerance in the country, ruffling the feathers of the governing right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A concerted backlash followed, his films were trolled and threatened with calls for boycott, and it seemed that he had lost his box-office mojo after three flops and two that did middling business.

In 2021, during the pandemic, his then-24-year-old son Aryan Khan was arrested, along with seven others, in an alleged drug bust on board a cruise ship off the Mumbai coast. The young Khan was charged with possession, consumption and sale of illegal substances and had to spend about three weeks in jail. Seven months later, all the charges were dropped.

Khan has always been outspoken and does not scare easily. He once reportedly told off a Mumbai mafia boss who was pressuring him to act in a film, “Shoot me if you want to, but I won’t work for you. I am a Pathaan,” referring to the proud, warrior clan that he is a descendent of.

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