Controversial Bollywood epic Padmaavat opens across the GTA, after India's top court lifts ban

The Bollywood epic Padmaavat, which sparked violent protests in northern India’s Rajasthan region, is expected to open across the GTA Friday.

Protests in India fueled by fake news, says Toronto founder of South Asian film festival

Indian Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone poses for a photograph during a promotional event for the glossy film Padmaavat directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The founder of a Toronto film festival says his only regret about Padmaavat, which opens in Toronto theatres Friday, is that he wasn't able to land the controversial Bollywood epic himself for his own festival in March.

Inder Chopra of the International Film Festival of South Asia expects the historical drama by director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, which opened Wednesday in India, to be a "grand show."

Inder Chopra, vice president of Toronto's International Film Festival of South Asia (IFFSA) visited India last month to try to land Padmaavat for his own festival.

The film tells the story of a 14th-century Rajput queen revered in India's Rajasthan region for resisting the advances of a Turkish Muslim king, after he attacks and overcomes the formidable fort of Chittorgarh and the Rajput ruler, in order to capture the beautiful Hindu queen.

Or so the story goes.

The film is based on an epic poem written 200 years after the siege in 1303, leaving questions ever since about its accuracy, and whether the queen in question even existed.

But in the northern region of Rajasthan, where Rajput warriors repeatedly fought off invaders, the film's rumoured depiction of the queen — a symbol of high female honour — sparked violent protests by some Hindu groups and Rajput caste organizations.

Protesters claim filmmakers twisted historical details, disrespecting their queen. Four states, including the government of Rajasthan, fought to ban the film but last week India's Supreme Court overturned the ban, clearing the way for the film's widespread release this week.

Members of India's Rajput community hold placards as they protest against the release of Bollywood film Padmavati in Mumbai, India, Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. Fringe groups in the western state of Rajasthan attacked the film's set, threatening to burn down theatres that screen the film. (Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press)

In the ruling, the judges observed that "cinemas are an inseparable part of the right to free speech and expression," and that "states ... cannot issue notifications prohibiting the screening of a film." 

Inder Chopra laughs, recalling his own trip to India last month to meet with the CEO of Bhansali Films, the producer of Padmaavat — a long-shot bid to open his own 12-day festival in Mississauga with the film. 

He jokes that he wishes the Supreme Court had delayed its ruling by a couple of months. "We would have loved to show this film."

 At the time, CEO Shobha Sant, was still awaiting the court's decision and couldn't tell Chopra when and if the film would be released.

Chopra had wondered if Sant actually welcomed the controversy as publicity for what is thought to be one of the most expensive Bollywood productions ever made.

But he says Sant was "flabbergasted" by the violence, including death threats against Deepika Padukone, the star who portrays the queen, and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Indian film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's epic, Padmaavat, is one of the most expensive ever made in India, with a production budget of US$31 million. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty)

"This has blossomed into a much bigger issue based on 'fake news' scenario, if I can use some Trump language," said Chopra. "It has cannonballed. Some people have died."

Chopra blames the protests on the rising tide of nationalism, not just in parts of India, but around the world, including the U.S. 

"Because we live in a very polarized world today," said Chopra, "with people drawing lines based on religious and ethnic identities."

Some movie reviewers adopted a somewhat dismissive tone about the response by Rajput activists to the filmed clash of kings.

From the Hindustani Times, below a headline praising Ranveer Singh, the actor who plays the villainous Muslim king, the reviewer writes, "First things first. Does Padmaavat cast aspersions on the Rajput valour? No.
Does it present the Rajputs of Mewar, who ruled in the 13th century, as heroes? Yes.
Has Bhansali gone overboard in praising Rajputs? Kind of yes."

For now, Chopra's looking forward to seeing the film for himself. 

"Bhansali makes his films really rich, lots of good song and dance, so I think it will be a visual treat."


Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"