MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Police and soldiers are guarding movie theaters in many parts of India today. That is because a new Bollywood musical about a mythical queen has ignited a culture war. Violent protests have plagued and delayed the film, as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: "Padmaavat" is one of the most lavish Bollywood films ever made.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QURESHI: It features the country's biggest movie star, Deepika Padukone.
DEEPIKA PADUKONE: And the character that I play is someone who historically, you know, there's a certain section of India that worships her.
QURESHI: She is Padmavati, a 14th-century queen from Rajasthan who was first documented in a poem by a Sufi Muslim writer. Today she's revered by certain Hindu groups because she burned herself alive in the face of a Muslim invasion to protect her kingdom's honor.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PADMAAVAT")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters, singing in foreign language).
QURESHI: But the movie was plagued from the beginning. Sets were vandalized. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was assaulted. Film journalist Aseem Chhabra says it was all because of a rumor that the movie featured a dream love scene between the Hindu queen and the Muslim invader.
ASEEM CHHABRA: The filmmakers from the very beginning have denied that there was no such thing. There was no dream sequence. There is not a single shot of them together. And yet the rumors refused to die down. And so the protests just continued and continued and continued.
QURESHI: And as the film's scheduled release last month drew closer, the protests spread.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST, CROSSTALK)
QURESHI: The fight exploded into India's 24-hour news cycle.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No, no, you threatened to cut...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Did they threaten to cut Bhansali's neck off?
QURESHI: Journalist Aseem Chhabra says then it got even worse.
CHHABRA: There were these political leaders, some actually belonging to the ruling political party, who went on television and threatened to behead the director, to cut off the actress' nose. It's been shocking.
QURESHI: All of this says a lot more about the Indian present than its 14th-century past, says historian Sunil Khilnani, author of "The Idea Of India."
SUNIL KHILNANI: What you're seeing in India is the weaponization of history. That's to say the use of historical figures, some who are mythic, some who actually existed but have now become sort of surrounded by myth - the use of them for present political purposes.
QURESHI: Khilnani says today those politics are fueled by Hindu nationalism, which is trying to rewrite India's multicultural past.
KHILNANI: What's unique about India is that all of the world's great religions have at different times ruled and held political power - Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism. But the current Hindu majoritarian imagination is very anxious and insecure about that, and so it wants to wipe out what is actually the historical truth of Indian history, which is this multiplicity.
QURESHI: As fringe groups claiming to represent Hindu honor called for an all-out ban of the movie, the studio delayed the release. And in an unprecedented move, the country's censor board assembled an outside panel to consider the sensitivities the movie had inflamed. The panel recommended multiple disclaimers and modifications.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PADMAAVAT")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters, singing in foreign language).
QURESHI: The movie's centerpiece sequence showing the queen dancing with hundreds of handmaidens has also changed, says journalist Aseem Chhabra.
CHHABRA: When she dances, she's wearing a short blouse and apparently showing her midriff. And then the protests started that women of that time period never used to show any skin. So as part of the understanding with the censor board, the filmmakers, they've have actually done some CGI work on Deepika Padukone's body where the skin has been totally covered up.
QURESHI: Throughout the controversy, India's ruling Hindu nationalist government has not stepped in. And historian Sunil Khilnani says that points to a larger issue than one Bollywood film.
KHILNANI: I mean, I think the important thing to remember here is the many, many other works which don't get this attention and which do get suppressed, whether it's writers in the Tamil language - Perumal Murugan - whether it's journalists in Bangalore who get killed for what they write. This is happening across the board, across India.
QURESHI: And violent protests against "Padmaavat" have continued on opening day. Journalist Aseem Chhabra says he's nervous about his own neighborhood outside New Delhi.
CHHABRA: It's not something where we can just say, oh, it'll pass. There are people out there who - they just don't want to be quiet. And none of them have seen the film. That's the unfortunate thing.
QURESHI: Those who have seen the film are already calling it a Bollywood classic, although maybe just a tad melodramatic. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EK DIL EK JAAN")
SHIVAM PATHAK: (Singing in foreign language).
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