Bollywood releases controversial film amid heightened tension

Dozens of theatres in the states of Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh refused to screen the film altogether

Policemen stand guard as a cinema goer arrives to watch Bollywood movie "Padmaavat" at a theater in Mumbai, India January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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The controversial Bollywood movie, Padmaavat, was released across India on Thursday amid increased police presence and sporadic protests.

Dozens of theatres in the states of Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh refused to screen the film altogether, worried that the mobs of the Karni Sena — the main right-wing Hindu group protesting against Padmaavat — would vandalise cinema halls.

The Karni Sena has stepped up its protests and violence over the past week, as Padmaavat — the story of a fictional 14th-century queen named Padmavati — moved towards a long-delayed release.

According to the 1540 epic poem in which she features, Padmavati was a beautiful queen from the Rajput community, a martial caste spread across north India. The $30-million film depicts the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji falling in love with Padmavati and besieging her city in an attempt to take her.

The Karni Sena — as well as small Rajput groups in states like Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat —  has claimed that Padmaavat depicts the queen in dishonourable light.

After India’s supreme court cleared the release of the film last week, the protesters swiftly turned violent.

On Tuesday, in the city of Ahmedabad, a mob vandalised a mall and set fire to cars and motorcycles parked outside. In the capital Delhi, theatre owners were threatened with violence if they exhibited the movie. Meanwhile, police clashed with protesters in towns in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

In Delhi's suburb of Gurugram on Wednesday, a crowd of Karni Sena members attacked a school bus full of children, throwing rocks at it and shattering its windows. A video, taken from inside the bus, showed children crouching behind seats in fear, jagged glass strewn across the floor. Another public bus was burnt in Gurugram.

Police arrested 18 Karni Sena members on Thursday for the attack on the school bus. The G D Goenka School — to which the bus belonged — as well as other schools in Gurugram closed for the day.

Although protests continued in states such as Bihar, Haryana and Rajasthan on Thursday, they were contained. Karni Sena activists burnt tyres, raised slogans, and blocked roads, but the violence of Tuesday and Wednesday had somewhat abated.

The opposition Congress party called the week’s events “despicable, reprehensible and utterly nauseating”.

Referring to prime minister Narendra Modi's speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday, P Chidambaram, a leader of the opposition Congress party, tweeted: "On the day when [Modi] invited world business to invest in India, Ahmedabad was hit by mob violence."


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Siddharth Rajamani, a copywriter at an advertising agency in Gurugram, decided to take the afternoon off to watch the film.

"I really wanted to see what the fuss was all about," he told The National. "But the usual multiplex I go to here wasn't showing it. There was a notice saying Padmaavat wouldn't be screened there."

Mr Rajamani saw the film at a theatre in Delhi. "There was a lot of police on the street outside, and a lot of security in the theatre," he said. "It all felt very tense."

In the city of Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, Naman Nagrath felt a hangover of violence as well. Mr Nagrath, a lawyer who practises in the state's high court, detected an unwillingness on the part of Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to stop the protests or permit the movie to run.

The four main states in which violence has occurred — Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradeshare ruled by BJP governments. Theatres may be refusing to screen the film, Mr Nagrath said, "because they've been pressured by the governments not to do it. That seems to be what these governments want".

The Karni Sena's Hindu nationalism jibes with the BJP's own ideology. The Rajputs are also a large and important electoral constituency across north India, which counts among the "political reasons" behind the states' inaction, Mr Nagrath said.

On Thursday, the supreme court agreed to hear a contempt of court petition against the Karni Sena as well as the governments of Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, for disobeying its orders to permit Padmaavat to be screened without violence or hindrance. The petition will be heard on Monday.

But the petition alone will not quell the protests, Mr Nagrath said.

“This is a politically motivated issue,” he said, explaining that powerful political interests were backing the protests. “I don’t think this will die down soon. I don’t think people will allow it to die down.”