The release of a highly anticipated Bollywood blockbuster has been delayed after a politician from India’s governing party offered a bounty of $1.5 million for the heads of the movie’s star and director amid outcry that the film distorted Hindu legend.
The movie “Padmavati” – depicting the life of a legendary 14th century queen Padmini – marked the latest in a string of flash points from right-wing groups that perceive more clout under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has courted Hindu nationalists has part of his political base.
Often Hindu outrage is stoked by little more than rumors, such as deadly riots and vigilante violence over false claims that Muslims were killing cows that are sacred to Hindu culture. But this time with the film, the reason for the outrage is even more puzzling.
Members of the Rajput Karni Sena, a group associated with the warrior Rajput caste, claim it misrepresents history by depicting a love affair between the queen and a Muslim invader. The group is further upset that the queen’s midriff is exposed in a song sequence. They have called for a nationwide strike, and backed the death threats against the star Deepika Padukone and the film’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
But Bhansali insists the plot has no such love scene. And the movie trailer pays ample homage to Rajput bravery and their role in resisting Muslim armies.
The death threats – against one of India’s most popular actresses and a prominent filmmaker – brought quick backlash. They were sharply denounced by leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the home minister in the southern Karnataka state, Ramalinga Reddy, ordered protection for the actress Deepika Padukone and her family.
Also at stake is the boundaries for world’s most prolific film industry, where some directors have increasingly tried to push back against decades of film censorship for political reasons.
Chief ministers of a number of states demanded that controversial scenes be removed before the film is screened. The movie’s producers have indefinitely delayed the film’s release.
The news agency ANI reported that Surajpal Amu, a state-level media coordinator of the BJP, told a rally Sunday: “We will reward the ones beheading [Padukone and Bhansali] with Rs 10 crore, and also take care of their family’s needs.” A crore signifies 10 million rupees.
Amu repeated the statement to the Indian Express. Video from the rally also showed Amu saying: “There’s no need to discuss making cuts to the film. We won’t allow it to play in theaters at all.”
An official from the BJP condemned Amu and said the party was considering taking legal action against him.
“It’s absolutely appalling. What have we gotten ourselves into? And where have we reached as a nation?” said the actress Padukonewho plays the leading role of queen Padmavati and who recently appeared in “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” alongside Vin Diesel.
“We have regressed,” she added. “The only people we are answerable to is the censor board, and I know and I believe that nothing can stop the release of this film.”
A member of the Rajput Karni Sena group, Mahipal Singh Makrana,responded in a self-made video saying: “Rajputs never raise a hand on women but if need be, we will do to Deepika what Lakshman did to Shurpanakha,” referring to a Hindu epic in which a man cuts off a woman’s nose. The group has also vandalized cinemas, burned posters and threatened to break the legs of actor Ranveer Singh who plays a villainous Muslim invader, Alauddin Khalji.
The violent reaction to the film’s release further suggests a groundswell of conservatism in Modi’s India. Bollywood films in 2000s were known for breaking taboos, when they increasingly began to show on-screen kissing, live-in relationships between unmarried couples, and interreligious romances, most famously in the 2008 historical drama Jodhaa Akbar.
Some members of Modi’s party have made efforts to minimize Muslims’ role Indian culture and history. Recently, members of the governing party misleadingly said that Taj Mahal was built on the site of an old Hindu temple, and that it “did not represent Indian culture.” The Taj Mahal was built by the Muslim Mogul king Shah Jahan.
Though members of right-wing groups have been briefly arrested for making threats in the past, legal action against them is rarely pursued by the government.
Ironically, the movie’s trailer shows no sign of an interreligious romance and depicts the Muslim king as brutish and evil.
The director Bhansali issued a video statement saying the protests were caused by a misunderstanding and that there was no romance between the Muslim king and the Hindu queen. “We have made this film very responsibly, keeping in mind the Rajput dignity and respect. I would like to reiterate once again that our film has no dream sequence between Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khalji or any other scene which will hurt anyone,” he said.