NEW DELHI – Almost 60 policemen stood guard by the entrance to a New Delhi movie theater on Thursday during the premiere of a controversial Bollywood film that has outraged religious extremists due to rumors that it includes a romantic scene between a Muslim and a Hindu.
The film, titled “Padmaavat,” was released amid the deployment of thousands of policemen in front of cinemas across northern India, following several days of protests by Hindu radicals committing acts of vandalism, while authorities have carried out some 20 arrests.
The state of Haryana’s director general of police, BS Sandhu, announced on Thursday at a press conference the arrest, so far, of 18 people who were implicated in Wednesday’s attack on a school bus and allegedly set fire to another bus in the outskirts of Gurgaon, a New Delhi suburb.
Sandhu assured that if the police were to find someone implicated in illegal activities, the person would be immediately arrested; he also promised strict reprisals against any such individual.
The shocking scenes of a group of children ducking in a school bus as it was being attacked by the radicals have been played repeatedly by Indian media, amid general uproar over the alleged passivity shown by authorities.
In several parts of northern India, there have been protests throughout the week with vehicles and other objects being torched.
On Thursday in Jaipur – capital of Rajasthan, where the film has not been released – members of the extremist Karni Sena, a group that is leading the protests, were seen patrolling the city on motorbikes.
In Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, supporters of the same organization stationed themselves at cinemas to urge the public to boycott the film.
The movie narrates the legend of a 13th-century queen belonging to the warrior Rajput community who took her own life in order to protect her family’s honor after her husband Rana Ratan Singh was killed by Muslim Emperor Alauddin Khilji.
The protests erupted over rumors of an alleged romantic dream sequence between the Muslim emperor and the Hindu queen, which has offended the Rajput community and some radical Hindu organizations.
The director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, has denied having filmed that scene.
The film should have been released in November, but the process was paralyzed after days of protests and after Suraj Pal Amu, the then-chief media coordinator of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the northern Indian state of Haryana, had announced a bounty of $1.5 million on the heads of Bhansali and popular actress Deepika Padukone, who plays the role of the protagonist, Queen Padmavati.
Finally, after passing through the far-from-flexible Indian censor board and receiving the support of the Supreme Court, the film, which was initially titled “Padmavati” was released amid heightened security.
As soon as a group of more than five people congregated close to New Delhi’s Delite Diamond cinema, security officials separated them and made them move away.
“The producer and director are also Hindu, why should they disgrace their own religion?” Mohammed Zaid, 18, told EFE shortly after buying his ticket.
Sameer Asif, 22, said that he does not understand the extremists’ actions either, given that the film is based on a poem.
“I have not seen the movie yet, but I have read in reviews that they have portrayed the Rajputs in good pride,” added Asif, who said that the disturbances may be due to the protesters solely wanting popularity.
Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal, of the Aam Aadmi Party, described the incident of the school bus as shameful.
“More disgusting is the complicity of those governments that are allowing it through their inaction,” he tweeted.
On the other hand, the Indian minister of State for external affairs, Vijay Kumar Singh, said on Thursday that “freedom of expression doesn’t give us any right to tamper with history.”
He added that people needed to calm down and resolve the situation by speaking with those who are protesting against the film, and they should be asked about their concerns and objections.
The Supreme Court announced on Thursday that it would hear a contempt petition against the authorities of Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh – all ruled by the BJP of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – whom the court notified this week to ensure public order.