In 1996, Mira Nair went to Rajasthan to shoot the erotic romance Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love . The movie’s explicit lovemaking scenes had the potential of upsetting the locals at the location, so the shoot took place under another title. There were protests against Kama Sutra in the state, but only after its release.

Could subterfuge have similarly saved Sanjay Leela Bhansali from being assaulted on the sets of his upcoming movie Padmavati at Jaigarh Fort near Jaipur? The attack on the National Award-winning filmmaker by members of the caste-based organisation Rajput Karni Sena on January 27 forced the crew to cancel the shoot and return to Mumbai. Bhansali has already canned portions of Padmavati at studio lots in Mumbai, and he needs to finish his outdoor sections if he has to release the movie on November 17 as scheduled.

The attack has rattled the community of line producers in Rajasthan who facilitate shoots of Indian and foreign productions by negotiating permissions and providing logistical assistance. The Rajput Karni Sena’s actions indicate that producers should not rush in where line producers fear to tread. “We often deal with tough situations but what happened at Padmavati’s sets is rather unusual,” said Tan Singh, one of Rajasthan’s leading line producers.

Would the attack have taken place if Bhansali had sneaked into the city with his star cast (including Deepika Padukone, Shahid Kapoor and Ranveer Singh) unannounced? Anonymity is nearly impossible in an age of non-stop scrutiny and easy access to information, but if a film unit wants to fly under the radar, it can, said Surender Kumar Kalra, who had worked on Kama Sutra as well as Priyadarshan’s Bhool Bhulaiya in 2006. The movie was shot over 85 days in Jaipur. “They finished the entire shoot under the name ‘Project 5’” Kalra said. “Shooting without a title is possible and that can be tactfully used to avoid uncalled for situations.”

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love.
Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love.

Rajasthan is one of the most featured states in Indian and international films, music videos and commercials. Filmmakers flock to Rajasthan state for its beauty, heritage sites, colourful music, dance and craft traditions, and ease of acquiring shooting permissions. An army of local line producers with varying degrees of competence makes these shoots possible, and their negotiation skills come into play if a production runs into a controversy on location.

“Any shoot requires permission at two levels – authorities and local,” Surender Kumar Kalra said. “The former has always been quite hassle-free in Rajasthan and in case of local issues, if things do not work out, the ideal thing is to scout for an alternative location that can accommodate the concerned scenes.”

When country-wide protests against Pakistani artistes were at its peak in September 2016, a Norwegian filmmaker of Pakistani origin was scheduled to shoot in Udaipur and Ajmer. Her scripts had been cleared by the local authorities, but the shoot was temporarily jeopardised by surgical strikes on training camps across the border following the attack on an Army camp in Uri. “During negotiations with the local village representatives, I remember convincing each one of them that there is nothing Pakistani about the filmmaker except for the place of her birth,” Tan Singh said. “To some, I even had to show her passport. Finally, they agreed and a potentially hostile situation was averted.”

Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities.
Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities.

Negotiation during a shoot does not guarantee a smooth release. Before attacking Padmavati, the Rajput Karni Sena had trained its guns on Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodha Akbar in 2008. Although Gowariker managed to shoot in Rajasthan by holding discussions with the protestors, Jodhaa Akbar continued to face problems after its release in the form of demonstrations, the tearing and burning of posters and even the forcible shutdown of theatres in some places.

In the case of Padmavati, the Rajput Karni Sena was outraged at rumours of a dream sequence between the characters of Rani Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji. But in the case of Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities, the director’s name was enough to incite the mobs. The 2006 title was by Maqbool Fida Husain, a favoured target of Hindutva groups. “There were long shoot schedules in Jaisalmer, but locals started objecting when they came to know that the film was being directed by MF Hussain, who was already in controversy back then,” Tan Singh said. “It was tough to convince the villagers, who vehemently objected to shooting in the village, and it did take some time but we managed.”

Discussion and persuasion also ensured a smooth run for Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 which, although set in the capital, was mostly filmed at Sambar in Jaipur. “Delhi 6 dealt with sensitive communal subjects and the Sambar locality has a large number of residents from both Hindu and Muslim communities,” Kalra said. “Objection from any one group could have stopped the project, and it was a 75-day schedule. We remember having a series of meetings with members of both communities and in the end, it worked in our favour.”

At times, even the most trivial incident can ruffle feathers. During the shoot of Prawal Raman’s biopic on Charles Sobhraj, Main Aur Charles, in 2013, the assistant director and other crew members were roughed up by a police official in Udaipur after they accidentally stopped a Superintendent of Police’s vehicle, recalled line producer Mukesh Madhwani. “The matter turned so serious that some politicians got involved, and a few senior officials were transferred,” Madhwani said. “However, what happened in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s case is strange. You have to talk to the parties objecting to the project. If you fail to reach a settlement even after that, you should consider changing the location to minimise losses.”

Delhi 6.
Delhi 6.

There was little room for negotiation for Bhansali and his co-producer, Viacom18 Motion Pictures, in the case of Padmavati. The Rajput Karni Sena has objected not only to the dream sequence – which isn’t there in the movie, according to a statement by Bhansali – but the very premise of the script.

One of two mistakes Bhansali made was to insist, as would have any respectable filmmaker, that he wanted to shoot portions of the film in the state where the story plays out. Both Sanjay Leela Bhansali Films and Viacom18 Motion Pictures declined to speak to for this story.

“This case is unusual because the concerned scene to which the Rajput group objected was not being filmed at the location where the incident happened – the actual problem was with the script,” said line producer Gyanendra Singh Rathore, who has worked on several Yash Raj Films productions and NH10 (2015). “There is nothing much the line producer can do in this case. Whether that will deter filmmakers can’t be said, because filmmakers often arrive here with good research. If a shoot demands Rajasthan locations, it has to be done here.” Rajesh Sharma, Director, Rajasthan Tourism, declined comment when contacted.

Bhansali’s second mistake was to assume that he had the right to shoot in a state touted as one of the friendliest places in the country for film crews. The production unit had a green signal from the authorities, but by ignoring the red flags waved by vigilante groups, Bhansali has paid a huge price. The Rajasthan government, led by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Vasundhara Raje Scindia, has neither condemned the incident nor arrested the attackers, compelling Bhansali to announce that he will screen portions of the completed film to the Rajput Karni Sena to guard against future attacks. When in the line of fire, it’s best to step out of harm’s way than fight it out.