Viacom Defers Global Release of Bollywood Epic 'Padmavati' Amid Controversy

Courtesy of Viacom18 Motion Pictures/Bhansali Productions
Deepika Padukone in 'Padmavati'

The historical epic, which was originally set to be released worldwide by Paramount on Dec. 1, has been embroiled in a raging controversy over its apparent suggestion of a romance between a Hindu queen and a warring Muslim invader.

Viacom’s India unit has deferred the global release of its Bollywood epic Padmavati, which was to bow Dec. 1 timed with its India release. As reported earlier, Paramount is handling the film’s worldwide release, the first time the studio is distributing a Bollywood title.

The historical epic, which was billed as one of the year’s most awaited titles, has been embroiled in controversy since the film began shooting last year. Padmavati is co-produced by Viacom18 Motion Pictures, the film unit of Viacom’s India joint venture, Viacom18 Media, which is an equal partnership with Indian media and broadcasting entity Network18. Viacom18, which marked its 10th anniversary over the weekend with a major event in Mumbai, runs various networks such as MTV India, Comedy Central, VH1 India and flagship Hindi entertainment channel Colors among others, in addition to regional language networks and other businesses.

Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Padmavati revolves around the titular Queen Padmavati (Deepika Padukone, who made her Hollywood debut in Vin Diesel’s xXx: The Return of Xander Cage) and her warrior king husband, Maharajah Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), of the Rajput kingdom of Mewar in Rajasthan who battled the Mughal invader Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh). According to legend, Khilji was besotted by the beauty of the queen, sparking his fixation to conquer her kingdom.

Padmavati’s troubles began when fringe members of the Rajput community vandalized the film’s sets in Rajasthan, even physically attacking Bhansali. The protests were fuelled 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. The protests have snowballed leading to death threats against Bhansali and Padukone who have been given extra police protection.

But Bhansali dismissed rumors that the film includes any such sequence. In a video message posted last week on YouTube and shared via the film’s Twitter account, Bhansali said that “I am reiterating that in our film, Rani [Queen] Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji have no such scene together which hurts anyone’s sentiments.” He also added that “we have made this film with a lot of responsibility and have kept the pride and honour of the Rajputs in mind.”

The Rajputs are a warrior caste known for their legendary royal lineage, which still continues to draw interest via surviving members of some monarch families who have preserved their legacies.

In a statement released Sunday, Viacom18 Motion Pictures said it had “voluntarily deferred” the film’s release adding that “we will announce the revised release date of the film in due course.”

India’s Supreme Court earlier dismissed petitions demanding a ban on Padmavati, stating that the film was still to be certified by the Central Board of Film Certification. But the CBFC has refused to view the film, stating that the application process was incomplete due to "technical issues."

Moreover, CBFC chief Prasoon Joshi slammed the filmmakers for reportedly organizing a recent private screening for selected invitees, including some media, stating that the producers were subverting “the existing norm of film certification.”

In its statement, Viacom18 said that “we have the highest respect and regard for the law of the land and all our institutions and statutory bodies including the CBFC. We always have and are committed to continue following the established procedure and convention. We have faith that we will soon obtain the requisite clearances to release the film.”

Padmavati is co-produced by Bhansali’s banner Bhansali Productions. As one of India’s most acclaimed directors, Bhansali is known for his signature blockbuster productions, such as 2015’s hit Bajirao Mastani, which was also based on historical figures and starred Padukone and Singh. Back in 2007, Bhansali directed romantic musical Saawariya (Beloved), based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story "White Nights," which was the first Bollywood film to be produced by a Hollywood studio, Sony Pictures.

Bhansali first directed Padmavati as an opera in 2008 for the Theatre Du Chatelet in Paris, which was based on the 1923 opera written by Albert Roussel. Bhansali’s production traveled to Rome and was also performed at Italy’s Spoleto festival.

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