New Delhi (Washington Post) - Leading Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone has pulled out of a glitzy event in the Indian city of Hyderabad to be attended by United States President Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a member of his governing party issued a US$1.5 million bounty to behead her amid rumour-fuelled outrage over a new film.
Padukone's withdrawal is a blow to the government, which plans a whirlwind weekend to show off India as a forum for investment as host of the annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, co-hosted by the State Department.
The setback is the result of a riotous controversy over Padukone's new movie Padmavati, based on the life of a legendary medieval queen, Padmini. It began when members of the Rajput Karni Sena, a warrior caste group, claimed that the film was a "distortion of history" that depicted the queen in an unflattering light by showing love scenes between her and a Muslim king, and by showing her dancing for an audience, an activity that would have been beneath her royal status.
The reports offended the Rajputs, who began violently attacking movie theatres and demanding a ban. The planned Dec 1 premiere was then delayed by the movie's producers, as the country's censor board weighs its approval.
The whole hullabaloo over the film, however, was seemingly sparked by rumours. The film's trailer lionises the Rajput caste and the director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, issued a video statement clarifying that the film did not depict an interfaith love affair. The film has not even been seen by most of its detractors.
Padukone declined to give a reason for her withdrawal, and it was unclear whether it was because of security concerns over the threat or whether she was unhappy over the government's handling of the controversy.
In an earlier statement about the movie's controversy, she said: "It's absolutely appalling. What have we gotten ourselves into? And where have we reached as a nation?"
Padukone, who is Bollywood's highest earning woman, recently appeared alongside Vin Diesel in xXx: Return Of Xander Cage. Her decision not to attend amid controversy mars Modi's efforts to dazzle his foreign guests. Previously, the authorities in the city were also found rounding up Hyderabad's beggars and locking them away in local jails ahead of the summit.
Some members of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, have joined in decrying the movie. Even the opposition Congress party - which usually champions secularism in India - refused to take a tough stance on protests. "We have to respect people's sentiments and take corrective actions," said Congress politician Sachin Pilot.
The movie's producers voluntarily decided to delay the film's release as chief ministers of several states demanded cuts, and many politicians refused to allow it to be screened at all.
Surajpal Amu, a state-level media coordinator of the BJP, issued the bounty to a cheering rally on Sunday. In a phone interview, he said, "If anyone says things about our sisters and daughters, we will not tolerate it. Deepika is also a daughter of the country...I don't have a fight with Deepika, I have a fight with the woman who played the role of Padmavati."
The BJP has tried to distanced itself from Amu's remarks. "No one can speak like that, they should not threaten anybody. Party is not with this statement," said Anil Jain, national general secretary of the BJP in charge of Amu's home state of Haryana. He said the party has started an internal procedure to discipline Amu, asking him to explain why he made inflammatory comments.
Police chief Baljit Singh Sandhu in Haryana, Amu's home state, said a complaint had been lodged against him for his remarks. "The statements he made were in Delhi, not here. But we are investigating him."