Something strange and bewildering is happening in India and nobody is sure where it will lead. Over the past two weeks, the media landscape has been dominated by the campaign against Padmavati, a Bollywood film which is ready for release – but cannot be shown because of protests.
The film tells the story of Rani Padmavati (also called Padmini) who was the mythical Queen of Chittor in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The story, familiar to every pupil in India, revolves around an attack on Chittor by the ruler of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji.
In most versions of the story, Khilji became obsessed with Padmavati’s legendary beauty and attacked Chittor because he wanted to capture her for his own. Even though he won the battle, he lost out on his ultimate goal after Padmavati committed ritual suicide.
The retelling of the story is not unusual. It has featured in plays and books through the years and has often been the subject of films. In 1963, the Tamil film Chittoor Rani Padmini told the story. In 1964, a Hindi film, Maharani Padmini, dealt with the same subject. More recently, the Padmini legend was the subject of a television film made by the noted Indian film director Shyam Benegal. In 2009, an entire television series, Chittod ki Rani Padmini Ka Johur, was devoted to the tale.
So what is behind this new anger for such an old tale? It is a question that nobody has been able to answer in a way that is satisfying. A year ago, during the filming in Rajasthan, a little-known organisation called the Karni Sena vandalised the set. This was regarded as a fringe activity and nobody believed mass protests would resurface.
After all, Padmavati is a big-budget production, financed by Viacom 18, a joint venture between the US entertainment giant Viacom and Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man. The film’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is one of Bollywood’s most respected filmmakers. Padmavati’s stars – Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh – are among India’s top box-office idols.
The Karni Sena originally accused Bhansali of besmirching Padmavati’s memory by including a romantic encounter between Allauddin Khilji and her. (Apparently, this was to be a dream sequence set in Khilji’s own imagination). There is, in fact, no such scene in the film and Padmavati and Khilji are never on screen together. Moreover, none of the protesters have seen the film or read the screenplay. They won’t say why the film allegedly portrays Padmavati in a negative light, but that hasn’t stopped the protests from snowballing. The chief minister of Rajasthan has requested the federal government block the film until “necessary changes” are made.
The governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, two of India’s most populous states, have said they will not allow Padmavati to be released in their states.
All three states – Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – are run by the right-wing BJP, India’s ruling party.
BJP functionaries in other states have gone further. Suraj Pal Amu, a senior party leader from Haryana, has announced a 100 million-rupee (HK$12 million) bounty for the heads of director Bhansali and lead actress Padukone.
Over the past week, the protests have spread beyond the BJP with the chief minister of Punjab, who belongs to the Congress party, complaining about the film’s “distortion of history” – despite the story being rooted in fantasy. Protests against works of fiction are not unusual in India. In fact, India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses following protests from Muslim leaders in the 1980s. Since then, every community has felt emboldened to call for a boycott on any work of art that it deems offensive. The Catholic Church demanded a ban on the 2006 film The DaVinci Code and nearly got its way as a previous Congress government wavered.
Not only is there a long and dishonourable tradition of curbing freedom of expression but fringe groups, such as the Karni Sena, know that the protests – which at times have turned violent – are the easiest way to attract media attention and gain national prominence.
What makes this episode so unusual is that there seems to be nothing to protest about. According to journalists who have seen advanced screenings of the film, it only retells the familiar story. No one – including the protesters – has been able to specify a single deviation from the popular legend.
And yet, not only has the campaign against the film been adopted by mainstream political parties, others have jumped into the fray. The Princess of Jaipur, Diya Kumari, who has not seen the film, has complained about insults to Rajput honour. The brother of the Maharana of Udaipur, Arvind Singh, has said he should be shown the film first and decide on its merits as Chittor was part of his ancestors’ kingdom.
Some of this might be understandable if Padmavati was a known historical figure, but most evidence suggests that she did not exist. The legend dates back only to an epic poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, written in 1540, more than two centuries after Khilji had died.
All of that leads back to the question: why has the film that faithfully retells an old legend become the subject of massive protests, death threats and a political storm involving senior ministers and state governments?
The only possible answer is this: the controversy is a symptom of a new India that confuses myth with history and opinion with fact; where decisions are made only on the basis of overheated emotion and a misplaced sense of community pride.
In this situation, reason simply cannot stand up to ignorance. ■