A New Bollywood Blockbuster Has India Up in Arms

"Padmavati" offers up an anti-Islamic parable that is undone by its subversively sexy bad guy.

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Feb 13 2018, 5:17pm

Protests against movies don’t ordinarily involve bounties for beheadings, but that’s exactly what’s happened in the case of Padmavati, a spectacular Bollywood historical drama about the obsessive love of a medieval sultan for an impossibly beautiful Rajput queen.

In the year leading up to the movie’s January 25 release, a group called the Karni Sena (whose members claim the Rajput warrior caste) stormed the movie set, vandalized theaters, and took part in violent demonstrations. Four states dominated by Indian Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, tried to ban screenings, delaying the premiere. The Karni Sena called for protesters to cut off the nose of the film’s radiant star, Deepika Padukone. Even more alarming, a BJP politician one-upped the bloodthirsty offer by putting up a nearly $1.5 million reward for anyone who beheaded the movie’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and Padukone.

The minute the movie actually opened, however, the Karni Sena withdrew their fatwa, mollified. Not only did Padmavati not offend their cultural and religious sensitivities: it turns out that the film is tailor-made to hit their most bigoted sweet spots.

Padmavati is based on a legendary tale about the love of a real man, Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi—who was, more or less, an invader from the north, part of the spreading Islamic empire—for a fictional woman, the beautiful Hindu queen of a neighboring kingdom. So urgent was Alauddin’s need to possess her that he waged a long and fierce war against her husband, eventually killing him so he could claim his prize. But Padmavati would not be so dishonored. In an act that sealed her fate as an ideal of Rajput womanhood, she led the women of the kingdom to commit jauhur rather than be possessed by their conquerors: they threw themselves into a fire in a defiant act of self-immolation, a mass form of sati, the suicide of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband.

While sati has long since been outlawed in India, it’s still revered in certain, very traditional quarters as the ultimate sacrifice and a matter of high honor. Some worried that the movie would glorify the practice. But this was not the protesters’ concern—instead, they were riled up by rumors that the movie would include a dream sequence where Aluddin dreams about ravishing his conquest. For the Rajput Karni Sena, this would represent a sullying of Padmavati’s chaste honor. For the other Hindu nationalists, to show the seduction of a Hindu woman by Alauddin, even in the form of a dream, would be to promote their favorite Islamophobic boogeyman: love jihad. For the past several years, some in the country have been convinced that Muslim men are coercing Hindu women to fall in love and marry, increasing their ranks. They fear the Islamization of a country where Hindus already outnumber Muslims five-to-one.

The protesters will be relieved to know that there is no dream sequence (as they had been assured by the movie’s makers, the Indian film censor board, and the Supreme Court, to no avail). And there is no need to worry about encouraging matches between Muslim men and Hindu beauties either: Padmavati is more or less an anti-love jihad PSA. The movie reduces the historical complexity of the moment, with its religious and cultural hybridity, to a cartoonish clash between the good Hindu Rajputs, driven by honor and courage, and the evil Muslim Sultans, driven by a bloodthirsty need to possess. Alauddin—played with lusty relish by Ranveer Singh—embodies everything that is dishonorable: he is crude and unmannered, he looks vaguely mud-stained all the time, he eats raw meat off the bone. He is, in short, a dirty, dirty, man.

The saving grace of this movie—which, for all its terrible politics, is a rollicking good show, recalling the best of epic filmmaking of 1950s Hollywood but with better CGI and to-die-for costumes—is that as played by Singh, Alauddin is irresistibly and even subversively sexy. He snarls and stomps and slashes and burns through the screen like a feral animal. His banger song-and-dance number, “Khalibali,” is a showstopper—a warrior’s dance about ravishing love.

Moviegoers had been teased with the promise of a homosexual subplot between Alauddin and a male consort. That this relationship was to be presented as a sign of the sultan’s debauched character was (rightly) denounced by some as homophobic. As it turns out, however, anything truly steamy on that front ended up on the cutting room floor. But even without it, this is a laudably homoerotic film, thanks to Singh’s pheremonal presence. The Sultan is meant to be all that the Rajput king, played by the extremely pretty and often shirtless Shahid Kapoor, is not. The problem is, the Hindu king is bland and honorable. Alauddin is electric and oh-so-bad. If Padmaavat was meant to pander to the worst anti-Muslim tendencies in India’s current political climate, that possibility is entirely undone from within by Singh’s smoldering performance.

Padmavati is currently playing at several theaters in New York.