NEW DELHI >> Police forces across India have reinforced security for the Thursday opening of a contentious film that has prompted hundreds of women to threaten mass suicide and other people to threaten murder.
The film, “Padmaavat,” is a lavish Bollywood epic about a Hindu queen, Padmavati, who was so beautiful, legend has it, that a Muslim ruler besieges her entire kingdom to have her. Instead of submitting, Padmavati commits suicide, etching herself into Hindu legend for centuries as a symbol of honor, self-sacrifice and Hindu spirit.
Extremist Hindu groups have whipped up crowds against the film, claiming that it distorts history and disrespects their legendary queen.
They have all kinds of complaints: Padmavati’s clothes are too skimpy; a dream sequence between her and the Muslim invader is inappropriate; the story has been twisted and Padmavati’s heroism has been cheapened.
One group of 300 women has petitioned the Indian government for the right to kill themselves over the film.
Protests are already erupting in many places, and rowdy mobs have vandalized movie theaters, tollbooths, road dividers, buses and cars.
An Indian television station reported Wednesday night that a mob had attacked a school bus, pelting it with stones as children and teachers took cover in the aisle.
Indian intellectuals watching the hysteria have been perplexed by two issues.
First, few people have actually seen the film. The most strident protesters admit that they have not watched “Padmaavat” and that their objections rely on hearsay. The source of the rumors is unclear. The filmmakers have been careful about leaks of advance copies.
Second, Queen Padmavati might never have existed. Although Alauddin Khilji, the leader of the Muslim invasion depicted in the film, and the Hindu king at the time, Ratnasimha, known as Ratan Sen in the film, were historical figures of the 14th century, several scholars said they could find no mentions of Queen Padmavati in sources from that era.
“We are living in strange times,” said Manish Tewari, an official with India’s leading opposition party, the Indian National Congress, who supported the release of the film.
The Indian police services are taking no chances, busing reinforcements into place on Wednesday.
“We have geared up our local intelligence machinery,” said Anand Kumar, a police chief in Lucknow, in northern India. “We have also told them to deploy policemen at sensitive points. We have asked the cinema owners also to deploy their own private security.”
Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of India’s most acclaimed directors, “Padmaavat” was believed to have cost around $30 million.
But many cinema owners are refusing to show it. They are frightened for their own safety, they say.
This is especially true in Gujarat and Rajasthan, two states in northern India with large populations from the Rajput caste, historically associated with warriors. The Padmavati legend, rooted in a poem written in the 16th century, is set in a Rajput kingdom. The first — and loudest — voices against the film have been Rajputs.
The chief ministers of several states controlled by India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, tried to block the film’s release, on the grounds it could stir violence. But India’s Supreme Court last week overturned all bans and ordered the film’s release.
A state-level Bharatiya Janata Party official even offered a bounty to behead the lead actress and the director. There seems no end to the threats, some clearly pitched to stir up the masses.
Earlier this week, a Hindu extremist with hundreds of thousands of Facebook followers threatened to kill himself on Facebook Live if the film was released — but first he wanted to see how much money it made.
The group of 300 women threatening mass suicide said they were still awaiting a response from the government — and ready to take their own lives.
News about the film has dominated television coverage and the front pages of the biggest publications. Some schools said they would be closed on Thursday over fears of violence.
“We behave rather strangely for a country acclaimed as the world’s largest democracy,” wrote Aroon Purie, editor-in-chief of one of India’s leading newsmagazines. “In a country beset with such serious problems as a slowing economy, crumbling infrastructure, suffocating pollution, ailing health care and a pathetic education system, the national conversation is dominated by a mythical character.”