Producers of a Bollywood period epic have indefinitely delayed its release following countrywide protests by Hindu right-wing and caste groups. Sudha G Tilak explains the controversy.
What is the dispute about?
The film Padmavati tells the story of a 14th-Century Hindu queen belonging to the high Rajput caste and the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji.
Bollywood stars Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh play the lead roles in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s lavish production.
Hindu groups and a Rajput caste organisation allege that the movie depicts an intimate romantic scene between the two characters, a claim the producers of the film have denied.
Padmavati is a fictional queen in the epic poem Padmavat by 16th-Century poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi.
The epic in Awadhi language extols the virtue of Padmavati who committed sati, the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, to protect her honour from the invading Muslim emperor Khilji who had killed her husband, the Rajput king, in a battle.
Sati is believed to have originated some 700 years ago among the ruling class or Rajputs in India.
The Rajput women burnt themselves after their men were defeated in battles to avoid being taken by the victors. But it came to be seen as a measure of wifely devotion in later years. The custom was outlawed by India’s British rulers in 1829 following demands by Indian reformers.
Historians point out that Jayasi’s epic ballad about a Muslim emperor attacking a kingdom smitten by the beauty of a Hindu queen was written in the 16th Century, more than 200 years after the historical record of the invasion. They say the folklore around Padmavati have also been problematic as they have glorified sati.
As the recent protests show, Padmavati is deified and held as a symbol of female honour among Rajputs even today.
What are Hindu groups up in arms against the film?
Rumours of a scene in the film of the Muslim king dreaming of getting romantic with the Hindu queen enraged many like the Rajput Karnik Sena, a fringe caste group, who have called for the film to be banned.
Last week, the group, which had disrupted the shooting and slapped Bhansali on the set of the film earlier this year, vandalised cinemas, and threatened to chop off Padukone’s nose, referring to a story in the epic Ramayana where a character has her nose chopped off as punishment.
The group also held protests against the film in several states, including Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, which are ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Rajput community members have burnt effigies of Bhansali and sought a ban of the film. Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has said it should not be released until “necessary changes are made so that sentiments of any community are not hurt”.
A regional leader of the BJP at the weekend announced a reward of nearly $1.5m (£1.3m) for anyone beheading Bhansali and Padukone.
Some former royals in Rajasthan also called for the film’s release to be cancelled. One of them, Mahendra Singh, said it was “an artistic and historic fraud to portray an incorrectly attired courtesan-like painted doll in the song as the very “queen” the film purports to pay obeisance to” – referring to a song where Padmavati is dancing. Such scenes would lead to “anarchy.” he said.
Bhansali has said the film does not feature such “dream sequence” at all.
“This movie embroiled into so many controversies because of some rumour,” he said.
But his pleas have fallen on deaf ears among those who want to “protect the honour” of a fictitious queen.
Many others have expressed shock against the open threats of violence against an actress and a filmmaker.
What are historians and scholars saying?
Historians and scholars have thrown their lot behind Bollywood’s filmmakers and actors, who have come together to protest against the threats and call for ban.
They have called it absurd that fiction in a movie has evoked such violent reactions.
Historian Irfan Habib of Aligarh Muslim University said Padmavati is not a “historical but an imaginary character”.
Some liberals have complained that the trailer shows the Muslim emperor Khilji in a distorted fashion as a meat-eating, deranged marauder.
Author Devdutt Pattanaik tweeted that Bhansali’s film “glamorises” sati.
Others like Krish Ashok bemoaned the “pointless” media coverage about the controversy.
Actress Shabana Azmi blamed India’s BJP government and states where the party is in power of failing to protect the film.
What happens next?
On Sunday the producers announced that the 1 December release had been indefinitely delayed following the protests.
And actress Twinkle Khanna hopes the film will prove to be a hit to give “befitting rejoinder to loony threats”.