Hindu activists threaten to torch UK cinemas in Bollywood film row

People walk past a poster for the Bollywood movie Padmavati in MumbaiBritish film distributors are reconsidering the release of a Bollywood blockbuster after its production sparked threats, violence and protest in India over the belief that it insults a legendary 14th-century Hindu queen.

The film, Padmavati, depicts the life of Padmini, a Hindu queen who immolates herself rather than fall prisoner to a conquering Muslim ruler. After baseless but persistent rumours that the film depicted Padmini in intimate love scenes with the Muslim king, there were protests, attacks on the set and director, and threats to mutilate the lead actor.

In the face of the ongoing controversy, the British distributor, Paramount Pictures, said the UK release date was being reviewed, amid reports that producers wanted to clarify the situation in India before making a decision abroad. It had been due to come out from 1 December.

A London-based Hindu charity, Rajput Samaj of UK, declared its opposition to the BBFC’s decision to certify the film for release and said it would hold a peaceful protest over what it sees as a historically inaccurate account of Padmini.

It told the Guardian that it did not want the film to be released but emphasised that it was opposed to any violence and was not basing its protest on the speculation that the film depicts an intimate scene involving the queen, which the producers say is false.

The call from the charity for the film to lose its certification comes after a fringe rightwing group in India threatened violence if UK cinemas showed the film.

The release of the film, starring the popular Indian actor Deepika Padukone, was deferred indefinitely in India this week after protests by Hindu activists and death threats against the cast and director.

Padmavati is based on a 1540 poem by the Sufi writer Malik Muhammad Jaysi. In the UK, the charity is upset because it believes the film has been falsely presented as historically accurate. Specifically, they believe, it wrongly places Padmini as the “motive behind the Chittor siege in 1303”. They say the siege was part of an imperial push by the Muslim forces and a contemporaneous account does not mention Padmavati, who was added in later tellings.

“Padmavati is a revered figure in India and she represents the national pride like Marianne in France and King Arthur in GB,” Rajput Samaj of UK wrote to the BBFC. “Efforts of [the] directors to glorify Alauddin Khilji are similar to glorifying Isis terrorists for killing and enslaving Yazidi girls in this modern world. We must stand up against the glamorisation of plundering, looting, and other barbaric acts.”

The charity told the BBFC: “We understand that experts can judge the violence, language, and scene but we need to find the right historians who can watch the film and stop the character assassination of Indian icons.”

The Hindu extremist group, Karni Sena, threatened to torch any British cinema that screened the film. The Indian censor is still considering whether to approve it for release there.

However, the decision of the UK authorities to approve the film prompted a leader from Karni Sena to threaten to take their campaign to the UK.

“Every theatre screening Padmavati will be burned,” Sukhdev Singh told the Mumbai-based Republic TV. I myself wanted to go [to the UK] to protest but the Indian government has confiscated my passport.”

It is unlikely, however, that the Karni Sena, a fringe group in India, has members in the UK and Rajput Samaj of UK was keen to stress it did not back calls for violence.

Though few people outside its cast and crew have seen the film, rumours that it included an intimate dream sequence between Padmini and the invading king have fuelled months of violent protests across India.

Rajputs, a traditional warrior community to which Padmini was said to belong, have been particularly outraged by the film and by clips of Padukone dancing and showing her midriff, which they say is a “distortion of history”.

The BBC reported on Friday that a body had been found hanging outside a fort in Rajasthan, along with a warning note mentioning the film that read: “We don’t burn effigies, we hang.”

Though historians say there is little evidence that Padmini really existed, she has attained huge symbolic importance among Rajputs. Bhansali has repeatedly clarified that the film contains no love scenes and tried to dampen the outrage by working with activists to cut parts of the film that may be controversial.

The Indian supreme court agreed on Thursday to hear a petition next week asking that the film’s UK release be banned.

Lawyers said it was unlikely the court could prevent an overseas debut, though the film’s producers have already said they would await the Indian censor’s approval before distributing the movie worldwide.

Hysteria over the film has grown as its scheduled December release date has approached, fanned by leading politicians including members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).

The party of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, has regularly been accused of indulging extremist groups that share its Hindu nationalist ideology and who have been implicated in a wave of attacks in recent years, especially against Indian Muslims.

A BJP officer in Haryana state, Surajpal Amu, was asked by the party to explain remarks he gave a rally this week that he would pay 10m rupees to anyone who beheaded Padukone and Bhansali. At least five states including Punjab, led by the opposition Congress party, have also banned the film’s release.

Padukone has described the threats against her life as “absolutely appalling”. “What have we gotten ourselves into? And where have we reached as a nation?” she said this week.

The actor, who recently starred alongside Vin Diesel in XxX: The Return of Xander Cage, is believed to have cancelled an event this weekend with Ivanka Trump as a result of the controversy. Trump is visiting India to speak at a business summit in Hyderabad.


Loknath Das