Calls to behead the director of a period movie that features the relationship between a Muslim King and a mythical Hindu queen have once again kicked off a debate about politically engineered controversies in India. Contrived
outrage is widely seen as a thinly veiled attack on freedom of expression. India's Supreme Court on Nov. 28, for the third time in a month, dismissed an appeal to ban the movie Padmavati
, directed by Bollywood auteur Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The appeals alleged that the movie distorted history and offended Hindu sensibilities. A right-wing Hindu organization spearheading opposition, Shri Rajput Karni Sena, at the behest of a senior figure from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) threatened to behead Bhansali if the movie is released. The militant group also threatened to chop off the nose of lead actress Deepika Padukone
, who plays the queen. "This is a very dangerous trend," said Catholic Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh state. This followed the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, taking an adamant stand against screening of the movie. Archbishop Cornelio complained that India's secular ethos is under serious threat. The movie is based on a legendary story of Hindu warrior clan queen Padmavati as presented in a 1540 poem. The poem says that in 1303, Alauddin Khiliji, the Muslim ruler of Delhi, invaded Padmavati's Rajput kingdom with a desire to capture her. After all her men were killed, she and other womenfolk immolated themselves to avoid being captured by Khilji, the story goes. Originally scheduled for release on Dec. 1, public screening of the movie is now indefinitely postponed following the attacks, primarily by nationalist Hindu groups. There has also been opposition from within the pro-Hindu BJP as well as in 18 of India's 29 states. The chief ministers of the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have said they will not allow the movie to be screened even if it is cleared by the federal censorship authority. Gulzar Singh Markam, leader of an ethnic minority group in Madhya Pradesh, pointed to growing political intolerance on matters involving Hindu mythology and history.
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One aim, Markam said, was to "whip up Hindu passions" ahead of crucial December elections in Gujarat state
, where the BJP's long political dominance could be put to the test by a resurgent Congress party. Academic and prominent writer Rajesh Joshi told ucanews.com that Padmavati is a fictional character and it is ridiculous to suggest otherwise. The historical poem at the root of the current row has been adapted for stage and film in the past without controversy. It was the subject of a southern Tamil-language movie in 1963 and a Hindi adaptation released in 1964. The leader of the opposition in Madhya Pradesh, Ajay Singh, criticized the BJP for not giving natural justice to those who produced the latest film version. Christian leader Christy Abraham, who is based in Madhya Pradesh, also sees the controversy as a political ploy.