Recipe for Ruckus in India: A Queen’s Honor, a New Film and Politics

A protest against the coming movie “Padmaavat” in Mumbai, India.

MUMBAI, India — They stormed a film set. They pulled the director’s hair. They burned movie posters. They even threatened to behead the lead actress — or at least cut off her nose.

Hindu extremists in India have played just about every trick in their book to block the release of “Padmaavat,” a lavish Bollywood film about a 14th-century Hindu queen.

But none of it worked, and this coming week, the most potentially explosive Indian film in years will open across the country.

With many Indians fearing that “Padmaavat” has all the ingredients that could lead to riots, the police are already planning extra security. The film hits two of India’s sorest sore spots: Hindu-Muslim relations and perceived assaults on tradition.

The story centers on Padmavati, a legendary Hindu queen who killed herself rather than submit to invading Muslims. For centuries, Hindus in India have lionized Padmavati and paid tribute to her unyielding honor.

But today, with Hindu supremacy rising and tensions growing between India’s majority Hindus and minority Muslims, the queen’s story seems to have become yet another wedge to stick between Indians of different religions and castes.

Even though few people have actually seen the entire film, rumors of offensive material have circulated on social media, leading to all sorts of objections — and the violence during production.

Some Hindus were convinced there were scenes showing Padmavati in less than an honorable light, which the filmmakers strenuously denied.

India’s Muslims, on the other hand, have remained largely quiet, despite the fact that the film portrays the Muslim conquerors as specialists in destruction.

A handful of chief ministers, a state-level position similar to a governor, tried to ban the film in their states, saying that feelings were so raw and anxieties so high that major violence could erupt. Disappointed artists said the politicians were simply feeding off — and stoking — the growing intolerance.

“It’s a shame, actually,’’ said Shyam Benegal, a well-known filmmaker. “These politicians are trying to look for votes. It has nothing to do with principle.”

India’s Supreme Court, as is often the case these days on divisive social issues that elected politicians either do not want to or cannot settle, was called in as referee.

After hearing extensive arguments, the court ruled on Thursday that “when creativity dies, values of civilization corrode” and that the show must go on.

The film is expected to open at hundreds of theaters across India. “I think a lot of people are going to see it just to see what all the fuss is about,’’ Mr. Benegal said.

The fuss began a year ago, when a band of thugs barged onto a set and pounced on the film’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of Bollywood’s most acclaimed. They slapped him and yanked his gray hair.

In March, vandals struck again, ransacking more sets and burning expensive costumes.

By fall, the outrage grew more serious. A fringe Hindu group, representing members of the Rajput caste — Padmavati was believed to be a Rajput — said someone should cut off the lead actress’s nose.

A few days later, a state-level official with the Bharatiya Janata Party, India’s governing party, offered a bounty to behead the actress and director. Again, the grievance was the perception that the movie had somehow tarnished the reputation of the Rajputs’ celebrated queen.

The Rajputs are a powerful voice in India, tens of millions strong, historically a warrior caste. Analysts said some politicians were exploiting the film in an attempt to unite the Rajputs into a bloc and win their votes.

The filmmakers said they tried to be sensitive to the concerns. They postponed the release date. They made a few changes to the final edit. They put a disclaimer on new movie ads, saying the film was “an ode to the famed valor, legacy and courage of Rajputs.”

The Rajput activists were not impressed.

“Our stand is the same,” said Lokendra Singh Kalvi, head of Shree Rajput Karni Sena, a Rajput group. He denied making violent threats but said his group would impose a “people’s curfew” on the film, or the equivalent of a boycott.

Despite all the concern with protecting Padmavati’s honor, there’s an interesting wrinkle: The queen might not have even existed. Her legend is rooted in a long poem, “Padmavat,” written by the Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540.

Over the years, this complicated epic has become like the “Iliad” for Rajputs, with Padmavati playing the role of Helen of Troy. It is a tale of a Hindu queen (also known as Padmini) so beautiful that an opposing Muslim ruler becomes obsessed with her and besieges her entire kingdom.

But Saiyid Zaheer Husain Jafri, a history professor at the University of Delhi, said that he had carefully studied historical sources from that era and could not find “any reference to Padmini.”

Several other scholars agreed. Although Alauddin Khilji, the leader of the Muslim invasion depicted in the film, and the Rajput king at the time, Ratnasimha, known as Ratan Sen in the movie, were historical figures, Padmavati, his queen, is a blank page.

Perhaps revealing was Jayasi’s signoff to his poem.

“I have made up the story and related it,” are the last words of his epic.

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