Why This Film Based on a 16th-Century Poem Has Sparked Violent Protests in India

The controversy around Padmaavat centers around its depiction of a legendary Hindu queen

With security personnel flanking some theaters in order to quell any unrest, the Hindi-language epic Padmaavat took in $16 million at the box office during its opening weekend. Before premiering last Thursday in India, the film's production sparked months of violent protests in the country. The root of the controversy, Michael Safi reports for the Guardian, is its portrayal of a legendary Hindu queen.

Padmaavat is based on a 16th-century epic poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. It tells the story of a beautiful queen named Padmavati, who rules over the region of Chittor. When the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji lays siege to Chittor, Padmavati, realizing that all hope is lost, throws herself into a fire so she will not have to endure the humiliation of a surrender.

Last year, while the film was still in production, rumors began to spread that the movie would feature a love scene between Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji. Though Padmaavat’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, promised that no such scene existed, Hindu mobs launched violent protests over what they deemed a “disrespectful” depiction of the queen, according to the BBC. The film’s crew members were attacked and sets were vandalized. Tensions ramped up after the release of Padmaavat’s trailer, which shows Padmavati wearing a midriff-baring outfit.

Four states imposed bans on the film, which were overturned by India’s Supreme Court this month on the grounds that they violated creative freedoms, according to Deutsche Welle. Protestors in the state of Gujarat subsequently blocked roads, set fire to buses and vandalized a theater. In the state of Haryana, mobs attacked a school bus carrying around two-dozen children—video footage shows the children cowering in fear. On the day of the film’s release, a man tried to self-immolate outside a theater in Uttar Pradesh.

Months before the film premiered, a member of India's Hindu nationalist ruling party made headlines in November when he ​offered 50 million rupees ($1.5 million USD) to anyone who beheaded Bhansali, Padmaavat’s director, or Deepika Padukone, the actress who plays the queen.

While there is disagreement among historians as to whether Padmavati was a real historical figure or a mythical one, the queen has become a deeply symbolic character in Indian culture because she was said to belong to India’s Rajput caste.

“She is very respected,” Giraraj Singh Lotwada, president of a Rajput group in Jaipur, tells Safi of the Guardian. “We pray to her, take her as our goddess.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.