The attacks on Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming movie Padmavati continue even after its release was indefinitely postponed. The Deepika Padukone-Ranveer Singh starrer was supposed to have been out on December 1, but has since been indefinitely pushed. With several Bharatiya Janata Party-led states declaring a pre-emptive ban on the movie before the Central Board of Film Certification does its work, Padmavati seems set for a long battle with its detractors – possibly longer than the ones waged by its predecessors.
The Rajput Karni Sena, which kicked off the campaign against Bhansali’s period drama by vandalising its sets in Rajasthan in January, had previously gone after Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar in 2008. The movie stars Hrithik Roshan as Mughal emperor Akbar and Aishwarya Rai as his wife Jodhaa. The Rajput Karni Sena accused Gowariker of distorting history and misrepresenting the community. The protests ensured that the film was not released in Rajasthan, where the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power. States rules by different parties leapt on to the ban-wagon: the Bahujan Samaj Party-ruled Uttar Pradesh, the Congress-led Haryana, and the BJP-governed Uttarakhand. The ban in these states was lifted after the Supreme Court’s intervention.
Although threats against filmmakers have acquired a particularly strident and medieval tinge during the BJP’s rule at the Centre – Padukone and Bhansali have been threatened with immolation, mutilation and beheading – Congress rule has had its fair share of censorship. The Congress party was responsible for an entire movie disappearing from view because it angered the establishment. Amrit Nahta’s Kissa Kursi Ka, a political satire on the Emergency imposed in 1975 by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was destroyed on the order of the prime minister’s son and Indian Youth Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi. All available prints and the original negative were confiscated and burnt. Nahta remade the movie in 1978, when the Janata Party defeated Indira Gandhi and came to power.
Political interference nearly derailed Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995), which was dubbed in Hindi with the same title. In Bombay, an inter-faith romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman plays out against the build-up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and communal riots in Mumbai in 1992. Tinnu Anand plays a character based on Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray.
The politician demanded and got a pre-release screening. Ratnam was forced to snip out scenes in which Anand’s character is shown inciting rioters. Muslim groups too demanded a ban for the inter-religious romance that drives the plot.
The film was released on March 10, 1995, four days before the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance replaced the Congress and formed a government in the state. Protests in various places led to the cancellation of shows, but Bombay ultimately became a huge success.
In the case of some productions, a theatrical release is only the beginning of trouble. Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1998) was pulled out of cinemas after its release. Mehta’s depiction of a lesbian relationship between sisters-in-law, played by Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi, was released uncut and with an adult certificate. A month after its release, members of Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal descended upon theatres in Mumbai and Delhi, vandalised property and frightened away audiences. Protests in Surat and Pune followed, this time by BJP workers. Maharashtra Chief Minister and Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi publicly supported the vandalisers.
Fire was sent back to the censor board for a re-examination. The film was re-released, once again uncut, in February 1999, without incident.
Mehta’s Hindu rightwing detractors got their revenge when she arrived in Varanasi in 2000 to shoot Water with Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and Akshay Kumar. Water is set in British India and depicts the exploitation of widows. At the time, the BJP was in power both at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh. Despite obtaining the clearance of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and securing local permissions for the shoot, Mehta was unable to film Water in Varanasi, as crew member Jasmine Yeun-Carrucan recalled in an article on Bright Lights.
“The day before filming was due to begin, the crew was informed that there were a few complications with gaining location permits. The following day we were greeted with the news that 2,000 protesters had stormed the ghats, destroying the main film set, burning and throwing it into the holy river. Protesters burnt effigies of Deepa Mehta, and threats to her life began… The crew were escorted to location by anti-riot squads armed with water cannons, smoke bombs, tear gas, four battalions of the Rapid Action Force, and almost 200 police. Under the blanketed protection of the armed forces, filming commenced. After two takes into the first shot of the movie, government authorities hustled their way onto the set. Law and order was at risk, they declared, and filming must stop immediately. We were forced to evacuate the location.”
Mehta finally completed the movie five years later in Sri Lanka, with a new cast, including Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas and John Abraham.
In the case of Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Muslim groups objected to the representation of their community. Starring Sunny Deol as a Sikh man in love with a Muslim woman (Ameesha Patel) from Pakistan during the Partition, the movie sparked off protests in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bhopal and Lucknow, especially over a sequence in which Patel’s character is shown offering namaz while wearing vermillion on her forehead.
A mob of hundreds of protesters, led by a district Youth Congress leader, attacked a theatre in Bhopal during a show with swords, petrol bombs, stones and rods. Incidents of arson at movie theatres were also reported in Gujarat. Despite the controversy Gadar: Ek Prem Katha went on to become one of the biggest blockbusters of the decade until 2010.
In the case of the Kamal Haasan-starrer Vishwaroopam (2013), an argument over distribution methods spiralled out of control and nearly derailed the bilingual film’s release. When Haasan decided to release his film simultaneously in cinema halls and on satellite channels, theatre owners across, Tamil Nadu opposed him, pointing out that they would lose revenue. Haasan yielded and agreed to defer the satellite telecast.
But soon after, Muslim groups in the state objected to the community’s alleged depiction in Vishwaroopam. The release was halted in Tamil Nadu hours before the movie was to be screened in theatres on January 25 after J Jayalalithaa’s government issued prohibitory orders and said it could not guarantee security for the screenings.
Vishwaroopam and its Hindi dubbed version were released on the scheduled date in parts of South India and some international markets, including Sri Lanka and Malaysia, ahead of Tamil Nadu. The movie finally opened in the state on February 7.
Bhansali joined the ranks of Kamal Haasan and Deepa Mehta with his version of Romeo and Juliet. Ram-Leela, starring Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, narrowly managed to meet its November 15, 2013, release date after Bhansali added “Goliyon Ki Raasleela” to the title. Some Hindu groups objected to the fact that Ranveer Singh’s Ram, an alcohol-swilling womaniser, shared his name with the god.
Two years later, Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani also hit theatres amid protests. A fictionalised version of the relationship between Maratha ruler Peshwa Bajirao and his second wife, Mastani, the movie endured attacks for a number of reasons, including the choice of actors (Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra), the costumes and the song Pinga, in which Bajirao’s wife Kashibai is shown dancing along with Mastani.
The movie was released in December 2015 after a Pune court rejected a plea seeking a ban on the film. After its release, a theatre in Pune cancelled five shows following protests by BJP workers. Bajirao Mastani emerged as a box office hit and won seven National Film Awards, including for Bhansali as best director.