The release of the film, the director's most expensive film to date, is threatened by sectarian groups
Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati in royal mess as sectarianism brings havoc
Millions of Bollywood fans are on tenterhooks amid an ill-tempered and growing controversy that threatens to disrupt the release of the season’s most anticipated blockbuster – Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s lavish period drama, Padmavati.
The film, about a widely revered 13th-14th century Hindu Rajput princess – also known as Padmini – is officially scheduled for release on December 1. But its fate now lies in the hands of a string of right-wing Hindu nationalist groups who are demanding a ban claiming that it hurts Hindu “religious sentiments” and “tarnishes” Padmavati’s image.
They have threatened to burn down theatres. And as if on cue, a mob carrying iron bars broke into a mall in Kota, Rajasthan, and vandalised a cinema hall screening the film’s trailer. It happened a day after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Shri Rajput Karni Sena (SRKS), which are spearheading the campaign, warned that they would not allow the film to be released.
“The government would be responsible for any unpleasant development if the film is allowed to be shown in theatres,” warned the VHP leader Dinesh Navadia as a group of SRKS activists, including its vice president Chhatrapal Singh, were secretly recorded by Times Now TV channel threatening to “barge into Bhansali’s house and behead him if necessary”.
Massive protests were held this week in prime minister Narendra Modi’s native state of Gujarat, after the Supreme Court rejected a plea for a stay on the film’s release. It said it had no jurisdiction to intervene at this stage, as the film had yet to be certified by the Central Board of Film Certification.
Padmavati is the latest casualty of a growing climate of intolerance in India with religious and cultural sensitivities being routinely invoked to demand censorship and attack film-makers. Just a few months ago, Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees was targeted because it featured a Pakistani artiste, and more recently, Madhur Bhandarkar’s Indu Sarkar, about Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule during the 1975 Emergency, was attacked by Congress Party for “falsifying history”. Bhansali’s 2013 release Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela was originally titled Ramleela, but had to be changed after a petition was filed against the film, accusing it of hurting religious sentiments.
Deepika Padukone, who plays the lead role in Padmavati, said the row was another instance of attempts to suppress free speech. “It’s appalling. What have we gotten ourselves into? And where have we reached as a nation?” she asked as disappointed and angry film buffs accused leading political parties of playing footsie with sectarian interest groups for electoral gains.
“In the name of democracy they’ve encouraged mobocracy. Anyone who has a few goons behind them and threaten violence in the name of religion, can get away with it,” says Chitra Mishra, a doctor, as people around the country urged the government to stand firm against attempts to incite violence. But, with crucial state assembly elections due in Gujarat next month, both the BJP and the Congress party are reluctant to act for fear of losing the Rajput vote. BJP has written to the Election Commission opposing the release of Padmavati ahead of the elections arguing that “distortion of facts in the movie will hurt the sentiments of the Kshatriya Rajput communities”. Congress party’s Rajput leaders have also opposed the film’s release before the elections.
The dispute centres on claims, based on a 25-second “promo” of the film, that it contains “lurid” sequences relating to Padmavati. Bhansali is accused of “distorting” history and casting slur on the queen, who is regarded by Rajputs as a symbol of Hindu womanhood.
Famed for her beauty and fidelity to her husband, she committed jauhar (self-immolation) after her husband’s death on battlefield, to avoid being captured by the Muslim ruler of Delhi Sultanate, Alauddin Khilji, who had fallen in love with her and laid siege to her native Chittor district of Rajasthan. The alleged sequence is said to show Padmavati “flirting” with Khilji.
“We have learnt that there is a dream sequence in the movie where Rani Padmavati has been shown romancing Alauddin Khilji. We condemn such a heinous portrayal our queen. Karni Sena will never allow such a movie to hit the theatres. It is our clear warning that if this movie gets released on December 1, there will be violent protests and the government will be responsible for the law and order situation,” said SRKS leader Mansinh Rathod. Bhansali has denied that there is any such sequence. “This movie is embroiled into so many controversies because of some rumour. I have already rejected this claim and also given a written proof of this,” he said in a recorded video. His co-producers, Viacom 18, also agreed to a “pre-screening” for protesters to clear any misgivings.
This is the famous film-maker’s most ambitious and expensive film to-date, with an estimated budget of 215 crores Indian rupees (Dh124.8 million), and features three of Bollywood’s biggest stars – Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. The film industry has come out overwhelmingly in support of Bhansali, a critically acclaimed director. The Indian Film and Television Directors’ Association has sought “strict action against those who break the law”, recalling that he was assaulted and the film’s sets were vandalised when he started shooting in January.
Meanwhile, in a new twist, several historians have claimed that Rani Padmavati or Padmini never existed, and that her story is a “myth” inspired by a poem written by poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540. So much ado about nothing, then?