The opening Thursday of the Indian film Padmaavat should have been an occasion for the liberal use of cliches about movies made in the world’s largest film industry: epic, colorful, vibrant. It has instead evoked another stereotype of modern India: violence, intolerance, and the diminishing space for free expression in a nation that, to its critics, is slowly reflecting the Hindu-nationalist ethos of its government.
Padmaavat, one of India’s most expensive movies, is loosely based on Padmavat, a 16th-century Sufi poem. It is about Alauddin Khilji, the sultan of Delhi, and his desire for Padmini, who is married to another king. That king, Ratan Sen, rules the northwestern Indian kingdom of Chittor; the story of Khilji’s sack of Chittor in the 14th century, the slaying of Ratan Sen, and the mass self-immolation by the women of the kingdom is the stuff of both history and legend. History because Khilji and Ratan Sen are historical figures; legend because Padmini’s existence is a matter of debate—the 16th-century poem is the first known reference to her. But historical fact has never gotten in the way of a good controversy, and so it is with this film.
Even before the film’s release, groups representing members of the warrior caste of which Ratan Sen was a part, the Rajputs, said Padmaavat portrayed Padmini in poor light. Their threats against everyone involved in the film, theaters that planned to screen it, as well as actual acts of violence prompted the film’s producers to say they would delay its release from December 1 to January 25. Rajput women threatened mass self-immolation if the film was released. Activists attacked a full school bus Wednesday near New Delhi, the capital, prompting authorities to increase security nationwide ahead of the film’s release. India’s Central Board of Film Certification joined in. The panel, which is a vestige of a colonial-era censor that still has final say on what is acceptable for Indian audiences, ordered Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the film’s director, to make five changes, including disclaimers and the title. (The movie was originally titled Padmavati.)