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Padmavati: Why a Bollywood epic is facing fierce protests

In Entertainment/Art

Producers of a Bollywood period epic have indefinitely delayed its release following countrywide protests by Hindu right-wing and caste groups. Sudha G Tilak explains the controversy.

What is the dispute about?

The film Padmavati tells the story of a 14th-Century Hindu queen belonging to the high Rajput caste and the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji.

Bollywood stars Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh play the lead roles in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s lavish production.

Hindu groups and a Rajput caste organisation allege that the movie depicts an intimate romantic scene between the two characters, a claim the producers of the film have denied.

Padmavati is a fictional queen in the epic poem Padmavat by 16th-Century poetMalik Muhammad Jayasi.

The epic in Awadhi language extols the virtue of Padmavati who committed sati, the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, to protect her honour from the invading Muslim emperor Khilji who had killed her husband, the Rajput king, in a battle.

Sati is believed to have originated some 700 years ago among the ruling class or Rajputs in India.

The Rajput women burnt themselves after their men were defeated in battles to avoid being taken by the victors. But it came to be seen as a measure of wifely devotion in later years. The custom was outlawed by India’s British rulers in 1829 following demands by Indian reformers.

Historians point out that Jayasi’s epic ballad about a Muslim emperor attacking a kingdom smitten by the beauty of a Hindu queen was written in the 16th Century, more than 200 years after the historical record of the invasion. They say the folklore around Padmavati have also been problematic as they have glorified sati.

As the recent protests show, Padmavati is deified and held as a symbol of female honour among Rajputs even today.

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