Padmaavat: India Tightens Security As Controversial Film Opens

Security has been tightened in several Indian states ahead of the release of a Bollywood film which has already generated violent protests.

Schools have been shut in a Delhi suburb following an attack on a school bus, and cinemas in several states say they will not be screening the movie.

Protesters are angry as they believe Padmavaat depicts a romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim king.

The film’s release was delayed for two months because of the protests.

Hindu right-wing groups have been burning vehicles and attacking cinemas in several states, demanding the film not be released.

On Wednesday, footage of mobs attacking a school bus near the Indian capital caused outrage.

No children were injured in the incident, but protesters burned other buses, and have also vandalised cinemas over the last few days.

Many theatres across India have said that they will not screen the film, fearing further violence.

The Supreme Court rejected a bid by four states on Tuesday to ban the film on the basis of security concerns, saying it was the responsibility of the state to ensure law and order.

What is the dispute about?

Bollywood stars Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh play the lead roles.

The film tells the story of 14th Century Muslim emperor Alauddin Khilji’s attack on a kingdom after he was smitten by the beauty of its queen, Padmavati, who belonged to the Hindu Rajput caste.

Hindu groups and a Rajput caste organisation allege that the movie includes an intimate scene in which the Muslim king dreams of becoming the Hindu queen.

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has said the film does not feature such a “dream sequence” at all.

But rumours of such a scene were enough to enrage right-wing Hindu groups who called for the film to be banned.

Is the film historically accurate?

While Khilji is a historical figure, historians believe that Padmavati is fictional.

The name of the queen, and the plot of the film, are believed to be based on an epic poem, Padmaavat, by 16th-Century poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi.

The poem extols the virtue of Padmavati who committed sati to protect her honour from Khilji who had killed her husband, the Rajput king, in a battle.

Sati, the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, is believed to have originated some 700 years ago among the ruling class or Rajputs in India.

Women in the community 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 ballad was written more than 200 years after the historical record of the invasion by Khilji. They say the folklore around Padmavati has been problematic as they have glorified sati.

But Padmavati is deified and held as a symbol of female honour among Rajputs even today.

How bad have the protests been?

The film has been sparking protests in different parts of the country since January 2017 when members of the Karni Sena, a Rajput caste group, vandalised the set and slapped Mr Bhansali.

The protests intensified in November as the movie’s original date of release – 1 December – approached.

Rajput community members burnt effigies of Mr Bhansali.

The Karni Sena vandalised cinemas and threatened to chop off Ms 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 governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje said the film should not be released until “necessary changes are made so that sentiments of any community are not hurt”.

A regional leader of the BJP announced a reward of nearly $1.5m (£1.3m) for anyone who beheaded Mr Bhansali and Ms 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 in which Padmavati is dancing. Such scenes would lead to “anarchy,” he added.

Earlier this week, protesters in India’s western state of Gujarat blocked roads, torched buses and vandalised a theatre after India’s Supreme Court cleared the release of the film.

What did the court say?

On 18 January, the court cleared the film’s release and overturned the decision by four states to ban it, citing fears of violence.

The film’s producers had approached the Supreme Court to challenge the states’ ban.

“Cinemas are an inseparable part of right to free speech and expression,” said Chief Justice Dipak Misra. “States… cannot issue notifications prohibiting the screening of a film,” he added.

The court added in its ruling that the states should not have banned the film as it had already been cleared by India’s censor board.

The board had screened the film to historians, who suggested five modifications. One of them included changing the film’s name from Padmavati to Padmaavat, after the 16th Century epic poem of the same name.

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