After riots and death threats, Bollywood film ‘Padmaavat’ opens to applause
The Delhi cinema resembled a fortress but the owners were not taking chances – riot police and iron barricades were preferable to Hindu mobs storming the ticket booth and attacking patrons.
Film buffs arriving for the opening day of Padmaavat – a Bollywood epic that has enraged Hindu radicals – had to manoeuvre past machine guns, riot shields and blockades to watch the controversial flick.
The precautions may have appeared overkill in the busy commercial district of India’s capital.
But an orgy of violence by fanatics convinced the film insulted a legendary Hindu queen has forced cinema owners to take extreme measures.
Opponents – despite not having seen the film – claimed the film featured a romantic liaison between Padmavati and 14th-century Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji, although filmmakers denied this repeatedly. Indeed, there was no such tryst. In fact, not a single scene brings the two characters face to face in the entire three-hour feature.
“All the controversy about a romantic angle between them was absolutely misplaced,” said Suman Sharma, an architect, after watching the film.
Fellow film-goer Neha Verma also could not understand the fuss, shaking her head as she left the cinema past the cordon of armed police behind shields.
“It’s a shame that people have been protesting without even bothering to watch it first. The queen has been portrayed so beautifully, no one can raise a finger,” she said.
Despite the hassle, the effort appeared worth it. As the end credits rolled, the audience erupted into rapturous applause.
Cinema owners in several states declined to screen the big-budget movie – the tale of a mythical Hindu queen who walked into a funeral pyre to avoid capture by a Muslim conqueror – for fear of inciting mobs.
Those worries were well-founded, as scenes of chaos played out across India on the film’s debut day. Mobs burned director Sanjay Leela Bhansali in effigy, blocked motorways with burning tyres and brandished swords at rallies in northern India while phalanxes of police officers were deployed outside cinema halls in Mumbai, New Delhi and other cities.
The protesters belonged to India’s Rajput caste who revere Padmavati and insist the film distorts history, even though experts say the queen is a mythical character based on a poem.
The studio, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, released a statement saying the film – at about US$30 million, one of the most expensive made in India – “captures Rajput valour, dignity and tradition in all its glory.”
As the lights dimmed and the film began the audience was informed the film was fiction.
It also assured viewers no animals were harmed and the producers did not endorse “sati” – an outlawed ritual of wives throwing themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyre.
The radicals staunchly opposed to the film may end up being its biggest saviours: industry watchers predict all the hype will make Padmaavat a box office smash.
“The hype is only going to work in its favour. It’s a work of art and deserves to be appreciated by all,” said Verma.
Last January, followers of the fringe group Rajput Karni Sena stormed a historic fort in northern India where the movie was shooting and roughed up Bhansali and his crew. The group also threatened to chop off the nose of actress Deepika Padukone, who plays the queen.
This month, one leader of the group in the northwestern state of Rajasthan claimed that 1,900 women had signed up to immolate themselves – in the manner of the fictional queen – if the movie wasn’t banned.
Producers delayed the original December 1 release date, slightly altered the title and added a disclaimer that the film does not claim historical accuracy.
India’s Supreme Court then got involved, ruling that states could not block the film because authorities had an obligation to ensure security.
Still, the Multiplex Association of India, an industry body that represents most major theatres nationwide, said this week that its members in four states would not show the movie “in view of the prevailing law and order situation.”
“What’s paramount for us is the safety of our patrons and the safety of our employees,” the association’s president, Deepak Asher, said in an interview.
The Supreme Court said it would take up cases next week against Karni Sena members and against four state governments for failing to control demonstrators.
All four – Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana – are led by India’s most powerful political party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, a Hindu nationalist organisation.
Critics have questioned why state officials were unable to maintain order and accuse Modi’s allies of coddling right-wing Hindu extremists.
One BJP official in Haryana, Surajpal Amu, was reportedly placed under house arrest on Thursday for comments he made in November, when he put up a US$1.5 million prize for chopping off the heads of Bhansali and Padukone.
“It is beyond horrible,” Tavleen Singh, a columnist who supports Modi, wrote on Twitter. “Why is there such a collapse of law and order in BJP states? Shame on the chief ministers who are allowing this to happen. Speak up please, Prime Minister.”
Modi was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, touting his country as a model of globalisation and economic progress. The contrast with the disorder at home – in some of India’s most economically developed states – drew scorn.
“We are self-delusional if we think we’ve arrived at the global high table,” tweeted Nirupama Menon Rao, a former Indian ambassador to Washington.
India might be home to the world’s most prolific film industry, but protests by Hindus – by far the country’s largest faith group – have sometimes derailed movies that hardliners accuse of insulting their religion.
In 1998, Hindu extremists attacked theatres showing the Deepa Mehta film Fire for depicting a lesbian relationship.
Two years later, vandals destroyed film sets for Mehta’s follow-up feature, Water, which they said promoted relations between high-caste Hindus and “untouchables,” the lowest rung of the ancient caste hierarchy.
As middling reviews of Padmaavat roll in, some critics have pointed out that the film glorifies the Rajputs’ battlefield successes – despite historical evidence to the contrary – while portraying Khilji, a Muslim, as an evil outsider.
When the film was screened Wednesday for Rajput leaders in the northern state of Punjab, one said afterward that he’d found “nothing objectionable.”
“What logic then for the curiously hurt Rajput pride when all the film does is singularly exalt the community,” film critic Namrata Joshi wrote in The Hindu Daily.
The other irony, Joshi wrote, is that for all the drama in the streets, the lavish saga on-screen comes off as ponderously dull.
“If there’s one disclaimer that Padmaavat should have rightfully sported,” she said, “[it] is, ‘Any lapse into boredom is purely unintended.’”