Protests Against Viacom's Bollywood Epic 'Padmaavat' Turn Violent Ahead of Release In India

'Padmavati' still - H 2017
Courtesy of Viacom18 Motion Pictures/Bhansali Productions

The film has been mired in controversy over its apparent distortion of historical facts, which has led protestors to vandalize some cinemas ahead of its Thursday release.

Viacom’s Bollywood epic Padmaavat continues to spark controversy as it gears up for a worldwide release Thursday, with Paramount handling its international release.

India’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that all Indian states have to show the film after it was cleared for release by the country’s censor board, overruling a plea filed by some states, such as Rajasthan, which had opposed the film’s release. 

Padmaavat revolves around queen Rani Padmavati, portrayed by Deepika Padukone, who made her Hollywood debut in Vin Diesel’s xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, and her warrior king husband, Maharawal Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), of the Rajput kingdom of Mewar in Rajasthan, who battled Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh). According to legend, Khilji was besotted by the beauty of the queen, sparking his desire to conquer her kingdom.

Padmaavat is co-produced by Viacom’s India film unit, Viacom18 Motion Pictures, in association with Bhansali Productions, the banner of the film’s director Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

The film has ignited protests ever since it began shooting in 2016 when its sets were ransacked by fringe members of the Rajput community who even physically attacked Bhansali. The protests were fueled by suggestions that the film was distorting history and apparently suggested a romance between the Hindu queen and the Muslim invader via a fantasy dream sequence, a charge that has been denied by Bhansali.

The ensuing controversy led to the film’s release being postponed from Dec. 1. It was eventually cleared for release after the censor board demanded some modifications, to which the producers agreed. These included changing its original title Padmavati to Padmaavat, with the new title referring to the epic poem Padmavat written in 1540 by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, which relates a fictional story about Khilji's desire for queen Padmavati. The censor board also asked for a disclaimer to state that it “does not claim historical accuracy.”

But Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh said they would not allow the film to be released in those states, leading Viacom18 to approach the Supreme Court, which issued an order that the film had to be released nationwide as it was cleared by the censor board.

That hasn’t stopped protestors from going on a rampage, with reports saying that some cinemas in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat were vandalized Tuesday by protestors, which led to the arrest of at least 16 people. The protestors reportedly burned vehicles and smashed windows at a mall. This has led to increased security outside cinemas in some states raising  questions about the film’s release in those territories.

The film hopes to cash in on a lucrative holiday weekend given that Friday is India’s Republic Day, a release slot that was first booked by Sony Pictures Entertainment India’s Bollywood co-production PadMan, starring Akshay Kumar. But PadMan’s release has been postponed to Feb. 9 to avoid a clash at the box office with Padmaavat.

According to reports Wednesday, some Rajput outfits have written to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi requesting him to issue an ordinance to prohibit Padmaavat’s release across the country to “protect the honor of Rani Padmini [also known as Padmavati], the icon of women’s honor and tradition in Hinduism, as well as high ideals, and of the proud Rajput history.”

The groups also warned that the situation would “worsen” if the ordinance is not issued within 24 hours. However, Rajasthan’s home minister Gulab Chand Kataria was quoted as saying, “we will ensure that law and order is maintained in the state.”

Meanwhile, as Padmaavat opens with paid previews Wednesday, critics have weighed in, with the Hindustan Times calling it a “beautiful film,” highlighting that it does not besmirch Rajput valor. Most critics have praised Singh’s performance as the ruthless invader Khilji as a highlight of the film. CNN-News18 said that the actor’s “delicious performance” was the film’s “biggest strength."

But the newspaper The Hindu wasn’t all that impressed, calling Padmaavat “an insipid love letter to the Rajputs,” while Indian news network NDTV slammed the nearly three-hour epic as “a tedious Rajput-worshipping film that just goes on and on.”