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 legendary 14th-century queen Padmini — sparked 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 as part of his political base.
Often Hindu outrage is stoked by little more than rumors, including deadly riots and vigilante violence over false claims that Muslims were killing cows 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 star Deepika Padukone and the film's director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
But Bhansali insists that 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 Padukone and her family.
Also at stake are the boundaries for the world's most prolific film industry, in which 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.
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 Padukone, who 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 Surpanakha,” 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 villainous Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji.
The violent reaction to the film's release further suggests a groundswell of conservatism in Modi's India. Bollywood films in the 2000s were known for breaking taboos, as 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 the 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 Mughal king Shah Jahan.
Alhough members of right-wing groups have been briefly arrested for making threats in the past, the government rarely pursues legal action against them.
Ironically, the movie's trailer shows no sign of an interreligious romance and depicts the Muslim king as brutish and evil.
Bhansali issued a video statement saying that 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 Khilji or any other scene which will hurt anyone,” he said.