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01/25/2018 13:48 EST

Epic Bollywood Movie That Sparked Protests, Court Battles And Burnings Opens In India

The debut of “Padmaavat” set off a new round of discord.

A controversial new Bollywood movie is causing security concerns in India as it opens in theaters across the country on Thursday. 

“Padmaavat” has all the hallmarks of what might have been a universally celebrated Bollywood epic ― a critically acclaimed director, an estimated $30 million production budget, A-list actors dressed in lavish finery, elaborate dance and action sequences, and a love story to tie it all together. 

Yet in the months before its opening, the film provoked street protestors to burn effigies of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and prompted a showdown in India’s Supreme Court over whether state governments can ban the movie. Hundreds of women have threatened to commit suicide, and in some states, theater companies scrapped plans to screen the movie for fear of violence.

 Watch the trailer for “Padmaavat” below. 

“Padmaavat” is a dramatic retelling of the story of the Hindu queen Padmavati, wife of the king Ratan Sen, from the Rajput warrior clan. According to tradition, Padmavati was so beautiful that a Muslim ruler, Alauddin Khilji, waged battle against Sen’s entire kingdom in order to capture her. But Padmavati commits suicide by self-immolation before the ruler could claim her. 

Some Hindu groups in India, particularly those linked to the Rajput clan, are outraged at how they believe Padmavati is portrayed in the new film. The protestors, led by the group Shri Rajput Karni Sena, claim the director distorted history and disrespected their legendary queen by portraying Padmavati in an intimate romantic scene with the Muslim ruler. The producers deny that such a scene is part of the film, the BBC reports. Several reviewers who viewed the movie have confirmed this.

The protestors have also complained that the movie cheapens the heroic acts of Padmavati, played by the popular Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone.

Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone visits a temple before the release of her upcoming film "Padmaavat" in Mumbai, India Jan. 23, 2018.

The uproar puzzles some onlookers. Many protestors have yet to see the film and are basing their fury on hearsay, The New York Times reports. In addition, scholars of Indian history actually are uncertain whetherthe queen was a real historical figure.

The Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji and his Hindu opponent Ratan Sen are real figures from 14th-century India. Padmavati’s story was immortalized two centuries later, in an epic poem by the mystic Malik Muhammad Jayasi. The filmmakers have said the movie is inspired by that poem.

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A scene from "Padmaavat."

Bollywood films that illustrate historical encounters between Muslims and Hindus, India’s majority religion, are often controversial, Reuters reports. And, as Hindu nationalism rises in the country, the film has become a symbol of growing cultural tensions. 

Bollywood is a “soft target” that generates “instant publicity” for groups or individuals attacking it, said Anjum Rajabali, an Indian screenwriter. The protests around “Padmaavat” have helped further the myth of Hindu sentiments under siege, Rajabali wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times in December. 

“Even a fictional queen and a Muslim king have become tools to garner Hindu votes,” Rajabali wrote. “Fabricating a hostile ‘other’ helps retain power. The methodology has been transparent — generate fear and hatred, and use those to legitimate violence.”

- via Getty Images
Indian protesters take part in a demonstration against Bollywood film 'Padmaavat' in Sikar, on January 25, 2018. Thousands of police in riot gear guarded cinemas across India on Thursday, amid threats of violence by Hindu hardliners opposed to the release of a movie about a legendary Hindu queen and a Muslim king.

“Padmaavat” was the subject of protests months before the film was released. Last January, Bhansali was reportedly assaulted on set by a mob of protestors. And in March, Indian media reported that the movie’s sets were vandalized and set on fire, causing extensive damage to costumes. Last year, a leader from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party called for the beheading of the film’s lead actress and the director.

Four Indian states, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, imposed bans on the film. India’s Supreme Court stepped in earlier this month to overturn the bans and clear the way for “Padmavaat’s” release across the country.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
A bus conductor stands inside a bus that was set on fire near the village of Bhondsi in Gurgaon, allegedly by activists of Karni Sena, who were protesting against the release of film "Padmaavat." 

The protests picked up steam this week, ahead of the movie’s opening.

In a letter to India Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a group of Rajput women in Rajasthan expressed willingness to commit suicide over the film. Police in the area told Times Now News that they believe the threats were hollow.

On Wednesday, a mob of protestors threw rocks at a school bus on the outskirts of Delhi.

As the movie debuted on Thursday, protestors vandalized shops in the state of Rajasthan and waved swords and burned tires in Bihar to show their displeasure, Reuters reports.

“If you have freedom of writers, freedom of expression, we too have freedom of protest,” Lokendra Singh Kalvi, head of the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, told Reuters.

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Rajput Karni Sena chief Lokendra Singh Kalvi addresses a press conference about the release of "Padmaavat," in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, on Jan. 24. 

Rituparna Chatterjee, an editor at HuffPost India, pointed out the irony of the protests.

“The local groups fighting relentlessly for days now to defend a possibly fictional queen’s honor, have had no qualm in issuing threats to the woman who plays the titular role,” Chatterjee wrote in a blog.

Chatterjee also saw the Karni Sena’s protests as signs that the group is seeking greater political clout and wants to become India’s next “foot soldiers of nationalism.”

“The Sena has been desperately looking for a cause, apart from Rajput rights, to make their agitations mainstream.”

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