The film at the centre of India’s free speech debate

The future of Bollywood rests on the response to controversial film Padmaavat

On 25 January 2018, hundreds of thousands of booklovers made their annual pilgrimage to the Jaipur Literature Festival to listen to authors from around the world. Taking a break from the hectic bubble of Oxford, I was one such pilgrim, eager to hear Tom Stoppard, Shashi Tharoor, Anthony Horowitz and Hamid Karzai to name a few. Yet, as I arrived in the pink desert city, the air was tense. Only a few hours earlier the Delhi-Jaipur highway had been blocked by a series of burning school buses and by midday a mob of bikers carrying AK-47’s were marauding through the streets.

After a lengthy delay, the Bollywood film Padmaavat had finally opened in cinemas, and protests had turned violent. Although it has, for the most part, been ignored in Britain, the controversy surrounding Padmaavat (formerly Padmavati) is surprisingly relevant to many current debates in our country.

Created by fake news, perpetuated by cries of appropriation and bringing the debate around no-platforming to the Indian Supreme Court, the dispute encapsulates the conversations that have dominated our news in recent months.

The film narrates the story of Padmini, a fictional Hindu queen who burned herself on a pyre to avoid capture by Khilji – a ruthless Muslim king. Padmaavat is one of the most expensive Indian films ever made, with a production budget of around $30 million, yet almost from its inception the film has been mired in controversy.

Padmini holds a near sacred position for the Rajput caste and production has spurred riots and lynchings over her fictionalised portrayal. Million-dollar bounties have been placed on the heads of both director Sanjay Bhansali and lead actor Deepika Padukone.

Rajputs are a Hindu caste renowned across South Asia for their bravery, valour and striking architecture. During Muslim rule over north India, the Rajput kingdoms were some of the few areas to maintain Hindu sovereignty. Their pride is closely linked with the ideas of Hindu caste purity and independence from Muslim rule.

However, a constant smear on this pride lies in the fact that many Rajput princesses were married off to the Islamic nobility in order to maintain independence. Thus Padmini – a princess who chooses to burn herself on a pyre, rather than give herself up to a Muslim king – is central to the Rajput imagination.

The earliest protests against the film occurred in March 2017, and within weeks a mob of 20-30 people descended on the film crew armed with petrol bombs, stones and lathis (canes). They charged and ignited the set, injuring animals and destroying several costumes.

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Much of this anger was directed towards an alleged dream sequence, depicting sensual contact between Padmini and Khilji. Bhansali swiftly assured audiences that there was no such sequence in the film, yet nonetheless the story went viral. There were soon mass protests against the film in many Indian cities decrying the hurtful depiction of Rajput history by Bhansali.

In November, resistance to the film became political. After a senior member of India’s ruling party called for the film to be banned, the Karni Sena – a caste organisation – threatened to violently assault and mutilate lead actor Padukone. Mumbai Police provided Padukone with security, yet no arrests were made. When the British Board of Film Classification gave the film a 12A rating and permitted its UK release, a Karni Sena leader threatened to burn down British theatres that screened it.

A $780,000 bounty was put on the heads of both Bhansali and Padukone by another organisation, followed soon after by a similar bounty of $1.6 million from Suraj Pal Amu, one of the media chiefs of the central government. Amu also threatened to break the legs of lead actor Ranveer Singh. The state of Rajasthan was named after the Rajputs, and as such its capital, Jaipur has been at the epicentre of the controversy. On 24 November 2017, a dead body was found hanging off the walls of a fort outside the city. Beside it, scrawled in hasty graffiti were the words “In opposition to Padmavati. We don’t just burn effigies, we hang them.” Calls to ban the film were eventually halted by the Indian Supreme Court, who ordered that it be released to protect the sacrosanct nature of freedom of speech. Protest died down somewhat and Amu, who had earlier placed a bounty of ₹10 crore on Padukone’s head, claimed to be a fan of Padukone, calling her “the nation’s daughter”. Yet when the film’s release date was announced, violent protests erupted across the country once more, again led by the Karni Sena. It is notable that even now, few people are quite sure what exactly the protests are about.

Despite the claims that the film “offends Rajput culture”, its reviews without exception rave about its majestic depiction of the Rajputs. The main quarrel with the film seems to be its misogyny and Islamophobia – not its treatment of Hindu characters. Such protests seem to be founded on fake news. What is perhaps more interesting than the origin of the protests, however, is the debate which has come to dominate the Indian media: who has the right to depict religious and cultural icons?

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Padmaavat (2018)

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses brought this debate to the forefront of the Indian consciousness in 1988 after it was banned as hate speech. However, what is new here is that Padmaavat is neither an explicitly religious figure nor a historical one, but a virtuous legendary character, akin to King Arthur or Robin Hood. Salman Rushdie’s book was cited as mocking the Islamic faith, yet Padmaavat is a cultural figure.

Thus as states across India announced they would not abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling to show the film (usually citing safety issues), many Indian citizens expressed concerns about the stifling of freedom of speech. Although the Indian government continues to evade commenting on the situation, hundreds of Bollywood stars have come out in support of Padmavaat’s release. Actors such as Hrithik Roshan, Priyanka Chopra and Salman Khan have cited the attempted ban on the film as an assault on creative freedom. However, Union Minister Giriraj Singh claimed that the film was akin to making a movie on Prophet Mohammed and that “if a film is made on Gandhi ji, and he is shown doing kathak or bhangra [Indian dances], I will never forgive”.

It was in this environment that Jaipur Literature Festival inaugurated its 11th year with a speech by Pico Iyer on the sanctity of freedom of speech and the value of religious and cultural plurality . The Economic Times of India reported that “while Padmaavat dominated JLF, with almost every panel backing the film’s release, loud voices on the streets called for the opposite”. Given the number of Bollywood films that depict Indian historical and cultural figures, the outcome of the Padmaavat debate will have enormous consequences for the world’s largest film industry. On the opening day of the Jaipur Literature Festival, Padmini, The Spirited Queen of Chittor, an English translation of a decades-old book on Padmini was released. Crowds flocked to buy it, despite cinemas across Jaipur refusing to screen the Padmaavat film. The outpouring of grief over Padmavaat’s release, while an identical book became one of the festival’s bestsellers, serves to highlight the irrationality of the growing intolerance we are witnessing not just in India but the world.