On Dec. 1, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, one of the most opulent and operatic filmmakers in Bollywood, was releasing his movie “Padmavati,” which is based on a mythical Hindu queen. Two weeks before the theatrical release, some Hindu activists from the Rajput warrior caste declared that the movie hurt the sentiments of their community by depicting a Muslim king lusting after a Rajput queen. And they could not permit that to be shown under any circumstance.
The trailer of the movie, which has garnered more than 51 million views on YouTube, depicts a bejeweled Queen Padmavati — played by popular Indian actor, Deepika Padukone — preparing her husband, a Rajput king, for battle against Alauddin Khilji, the 14th century Sultan of Delhi. It is a paean to Rajput pride.
A leader of the Rajput Karni Sena (Rajput Action Army) threatened to maim Ms. Padukone by cutting off her nose. Another upper caste Hindu activist offered a reward of 50 million rupees ($775,500) to anyone who would behead Ms. Padukone and Mr. Bhansali. A leader of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party doubled the reward for beheading the actor and the filmmaker to 100 million rupees ($1.6 million) and offered to look after the murderer’s family as well.
Ranveer Singh, the actor who plays Khilji in the movie, spoke out in support of Ms. Padukone and a party leader threatened to break his legs. Members of the Rajput Karni Sena had assaulted Mr. Bhansali in January while he was filming in Jaipur in the northern state of Rajasthan.
Three major Indian states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party — Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar — banned the movie. In two other states — Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — chief ministers who are members of the party insisted that they won’t allow the movie to be released before Mr. Bhansali makes “necessary changes.” Prime Minister Modi, who is usually loquacious on social media, has stayed silent so far.
Alauddin Khilji did fight and defeat the Rajput king of Chittor in Rajasthan in the early 14th century. Queen Padmavati, however, never existed.
The legend of Padmavati was born more than two centuries after Khilji’s death. Malik Muhammad Jayasi, a Sufi Muslim poet, created the character of Padmavati in an epic poem he wrote in the mid-16th century.
Ramya Sreenivasan, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who researched the retelling and rewriting of the legend of Padmavati over the centuries for her book, “Many Lives of a Rajput Queen,” has argued that the current form of the legend took shape in 19th-century colonial Bengal, and Padmavati became the heroic Hindu queen who committed suicide to save her honor from a licentious Muslim invader.
To defuse the threats, Mr. Bhansali, the filmmaker, privately screened the movie for a couple of India’s leading right-wing television journalists, who certified that his movie indeed glorified the Rajputs. In a video recording, he further declared that the movie does not include a romantic sequence between Khilji and Padmavati, not even a scene where the Sultan dreams about her.
The trailer of the movie suggests that Mr. Bhansali has portrayed Khilji as a savage despite historians’ rather complimentary assessments. Mr. Bhansali’s Khilji has shoulder-length hair, eyes lined with black kohl, and several scars adding menace to his face. He rides furiously ahead of a mighty invading army, pounds men to dust in wrestling matches, bares his teeth after psychopathic laughter and lustily chomps on a massive chunk of meat.
Yet Mr. Bhansali had to postpone the theatrical release of the movie. The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly reiterated that the Indian Central Board of Film Certification alone has the authority to ban or clear the release of a film. But the Bharatiya Janata Party governments have ignored both the inviolable constitutional freedoms and the guidelines of the highest court of the land.
The groups attacking the movie, the filmmaker and the actors clearly did not want the movie to be released, because it would refute their accusations. The pivotal truth is that Mr. Modi’s and his party’s popularity has been fading after bad policy decisions that have hurt the Indian economy.
The party has been nervous about a difficult state election in the western state of Gujarat — the home of Mr. Modi — which will be completed by mid-December. The electoral campaign run by Mr. Modi and various other leaders of his party has been full of speeches aimed at increasing religious polarization and convincing the Hindu majority to vote for it once more.
The protests around the movie helped create the myth of Hindu sentiments being under siege. Even a fictional queen and a Muslim king have become tools to garner Hindu votes. Fabricating a hostile “other” helps retain power. The methodology has been transparent — generate fear and hatred, and use those to legitimate violence.
And Bollywood is a soft target. It has been at the receiving end of not just the Hindu nationalists but also other political and social groups. A few years back, three Indian states pre-emptively banned “Aarakshan” (“Reservation”), a movie about the country’s affirmative-action program, by claiming that the film was against the Dalits. In 2010, the Indian National Congress appointed one of their men to the film certification board after rumors that a character in “Raajneeti” (“Politics”), a movie I wrote, was based on the Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi. His job was to eliminate any negative characterization.
Because Bollywood movies are widely publicized and occupy a significant place in everyday conversation, they become perfect targets to generate instant publicity for the groups or individuals attacking them. Bollywood has developed a justifiable sense of being left to the wolves; the state has almost never shown any inclination to prevent or curb violence against films.
The film industry itself has failed to offer a unified, collective response. The biggest stars and the most influential filmmakers have stayed silent. There have been no calls for strikes and protests, no appeals for boycotts or shutdowns. They see such attacks as specific to the film, its actors and filmmaker. It doesn’t concern itself about the broader principles of creative freedom.
The fear of a mob at their glamorous gates is a factor in their silence but Bollywood stars and producers also have a long history of acquiescence and cowardice in their dealings with power. The assault on Mr. Bhansali’s movie illustrates a bleak scenario where Bollywood’s anxiety about extraconstitutional censorship will weigh heavily on its creative choices. It might just fall back on the old formula of romances and comedies with song and dance routines.
Anjum Rajabali has written several Hindi movies and heads the screenwriting program at the Whistling Woods International film school in Mumbai.