AHMEDABAD (AFP) - Hindu hardliners rampaged through several Indian cities on Wednesday (Jan 24) protesting a controversial Bollywood film on the eve of its cinema debut, as violent mobs clashed with police, torched vehicles and vandalised malls.
The unrest followed a night of rioting in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where police fired shots in the air to disperse hundreds protesting against Padmaavat, a film about a legendary Hindu queen.
Demonstrators claim the film falsely depicts a romance between queen Padmavati and 14th century Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji. Producers deny this and insist they have portrayed her respectfully in the movie, which has not yet been viewed by its critics.
Police have doubled down on security around cinemas across India ahead of the film’s release on Thursday, rounding up Hindu hardliners.
A bus was torched Wednesday by a mob in Gurgaon, a satellite city outside the capital New Delhi, briefly blocking a major highway to the south as protesters pelted stones at police.
Similar riots unfolded in other cities, with baton-wielding police charging protesters in Etawah in Uttar Pradesh state as they marched through the streets. Demonstrators also stopped a passenger train on the tracks in Mathura, another large city in the state.
Cinemas and malls were targeted by protesters in several cities, including Jammu where a ticket booth was torched. Police in riot gear were stationed outside theatres as threats of violence escalated.
A caste-based group, the Shree Rajput Karni Sena, has threatened to attack cinemas showing the film.
A group of about 150 women belonging to the Rajput caste threatened Wednesday to burn themselves alive if the film was released.
“The government should either ban the film, or give us the permission to kill ourselves,” one of the women told Indian broadcaster Times Now.
Efforts by several states to ban its release was rejected by India’s top court, which ruled such action violated creative freedom.
Ahmedabad police commissioner AK Singh said extra forces had been deployed near malls and cinema halls in the Gujarati city following widespread vandalism and arson Tuesday evening.
“The mob resorted to violence despite the cinema hall owners assuring that they will not screen Padmaavat,” Singh told reporters Wednesday.
Police in Ahmedabad said more than 500 names had been registered and at least 100 arrests made following the melee, which saw 50 motorbikes torched and cars and malls vandalised.
In Mumbai police rounded up 50 suspects affiliated with hardline groups on Wednesday, in a “pre-emptive action” ahead of the release, said the city’s police spokesman Deepak Deoraj.
Hindu protesters had set car tires ablaze during a demonstration in India’s financial capital on Tuesday.
The film was cleared for release earlier this month by the censor board with five changes.
Full-page advertisements appeared in Indian newspapers at that time saying the film portrayed the legendary queen “with utmost respect”.
Protesters maintain it distorts history, even though experts say the queen is a mythical character.
Several hardliners have offered bounties of up to 50 million rupees (S$1 million) to anyone who “beheaded” lead actress Deepika Padukone or the film’s director Sanjay Leela Bhansali .
In January last year, Rajput Karni Sena members attacked Bhansali and vandalised the set during filming in Rajasthan.
The group’s leader, Lokendra Singh Kalvi, pointed the finger at the director as the violence unfurled across at least five Indian states.
“All this is happening because of Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He should be blamed for all this,” Kalvi told reporters Wednesday.
The movie stars Shahid Kapoor as Maharawal Ratan Singh, the husband of Padmavati, and Ranveer Singh as Khilji who leads an invasion to try to capture the queen.
Film-makers say the movie is based on a work of fiction by a 16th-century Sufi poet.