The Bollywood film Padmavati, a period epic depicting the story of a 14th century Hindu queen and a Muslim ruler, was one of the year’s most awaited movies.
But the film’s producers have indefinitely delayed its release amid fierce protests and violent threats by right-wing Hindu groups who charge the movie distorts history and depicts a romantic scene between Muslim king Alauddin Khilji and Padmavati, the Hindu queen, who historians say is fictional.
A regional legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has announced a $1.5 million reward to behead the heroine, actress Deepika Padukone, and acclaimed Bollywood filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The group spearheading the protests, Rajput Karni Sena, has attacked a cinema that showed the film's trailer, threatened to cut off the heroine’s nose and vowed to block the film.
The violent protests have raised questions about an assault on the right of artistic and creative expression and concerns that Hindu fringe groups have been emboldened with the Hindu nationalist BJP in power.
The filmmakers have repeatedly said the protesters should watch the movie before concluding that it hurts Hindu sentiment and denied that it depicts a romantic scene between the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji and Padmavati – the rumor that fanned the protests.
Those arguments have cut no ice: the opponents insist that the film will hurt the honor of Rajputs, a warrior caste of North India for whom Padmavati is a symbol of pride and honor.
While the BJP government in New Delhi has distanced itself from the controversy, several leaders of BJP-ruled states have joined the chorus of protest with three chief ministers announcing the movie will not be screened in their states. “We believe in freedom of speech and expression, but any foul play with our great culture is not tolerated," said the chief minister of Gujarat state, Vijay Rupani.
Political analyst Satish Misra with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi questions why authorities have not acted against those threatening violence. “It is the government’s responsibility to keep the environment secure so that people can be creative, whether it is poetry or filmaking,” he said.
Historians have been taken aback by claims that the film distorts history and point out that there is no clear evidence that Padmavati existed.
They say she became the stuff of folklore after she was extolled in a 16th century Sufi epic poem, “Padmavat,” as a beautiful queen who committed “Jauhar,” a medieval practice in which women of royal households walked into funeral pyres to avoid being taken captive.
But their repeated assertions have made no impact on the Karni Sena, whose members belong to the caste claiming its lineage from queen Padmavati.
“Am I a ghost? I'm a descendant. Then how can anyone even question the existence of our family?” said the group's head, Lokendra Singh Kalvi.
Earlier this year the group vandalized the sets during the film's shooting and assaulted the director.
Puzzled by the outcry over the movie, historian Rana Safvi said people have stopped investigating. “They just like to believe whatever they have heard. Venting their anger at a filmmaker or maybe a story teller, or a writer, these are very easy targets, soft targets,” she said.
Protests over books, films and writings which Hindu or Muslim groups find offensive are not new in India. American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History,” was pulled off the shelves in 2014 by a publishing house after protests by a Hindu right-wing group. Salman Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" is banned in India since many Muslims consider it blasphemous.
Political analysts say the controversy has assumed larger-than-life proportions because it erupted ahead of a string of crucial state elections, when caste and identity politics always come into sharper focus.
But Misra said the raging debate over the Bollywood film has reinforced perceptions that fringe Hindu groups have gained a bigger voice with the BJP in power both in New Delhi and in as many as 18 states.
“Today India is speaking in voices of caste and narrow political interests because this controversy had nothing to do with historical facts. It [such controversies] has been happening in the past also, but it is growing,” he said.