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Raj Thackeray accepts Bachchan apology, calls off stir

MUMBAI (Reuters) - A boycott threat against actor Amitabh Bachchan and his family by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) was called off by its chief Raj Thackeray on Thursday, a day after Bachchan apologised for a remark that had irked the regional party.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) party head Raj Thackeray leaves after addressing a news conference in Mumbai September 11, 2008. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

“We are withdrawing our agitation,” Thackeray said in a news conference broadcast live on television channels.

This week, Bachchan’s family was swept up in a row after his wife, Jaya, apparently promoted Hindi over the local language in Mumbai, Marathi.

The right-wing MNS party interpreted Jaya’s remark as an insult to the Marathi-speaking population, urging a boycott of films starring the Bachchans, who hail from Uttar Pradesh, and all products endorsed by the family -- Amitabh, Jaya, their son Abhishek and daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai.

Posters of Amitabh Bachchan’s new film “The Last Lear” were ripped off and a theatre screening the film vandalised, forcing its producers to call off the premiere on Wednesday.

Bachchan plays an eccentric stage actor who often quotes Shakespeare in the English-language film, slated to open in cinemas on Friday.

At a news conference late on Wednesday, Bachchan said he was sorry if Jaya’s off-the-cuff remark hurt any sentiment.

Some of Bollywood’s top stars have been caught up in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of regional parties like the MNS, whose politics is based on nativist pride for the people of the state of Maharashtra.

The MNS has a powerful influence over Mumbai, much like its larger political rival Shiv Sena, drawing sustenance from a politics of resisting immigration into Mumbai by Indians from states other than Maharashtra.

The party has accused the Bachchans in the past as well of being ungrateful and not doing enough for Maharashtra, where they had found fame and fortune.

Not to be outdone at nativist rabble-rousing, the Shiv Sena, too, has spotted insult in top star Shah Rukh Khan’s fond reminiscences of his native town New Delhi.

“If he loves Delhi, then why did he come to Mumbai?” an article in “Saamna”, the party’s mouthpiece, said. “These people come here, fill up their bellies and then burp in the name of their own states.”

For generations, waves of migrants have tried to escape rural poverty by coming to Mumbai, gradually elbowing out the local Maharashtrians, who now form less than 50 percent of the city’s more than 17 million people.

Until recently, Shiv Sena had drifted away from its pro-Marathi posture as it tried to appeal to voters in other states, while also reaching out to non-Marathi communities to widen its base.

But in 2006, Raj Thackeray, the nephew of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, deserted the party to form the MNS.

Once again, news channels ran pictures of non-Marathis being beaten in Mumbai’s streets, this time by MNS workers.

Bollywood, too, has occasionally been at the receiving end of nativist anger. Screenings of art house movies about lesbians and other perceived threats to Indian culture have been attacked by right-wing parties.

Some analysts see Shiv Sena returning to its roots as it tries to hang on to its Marathi votebank ahead of local and national elections due next year.