Film buffs arriving for the opening day of “Padmaavat”, a Bollywood epic that has enraged Hindu radicals, had to manoeuvre past machine guns, riot shields and blockades to watch the controversial flick.
The precautions may have appeared overkill in the busy commercial district of India’s capital.
But an orgy of violence by fanatics convinced the film insulted a legendary Hindu queen has forced cinema owners to take extreme measures.
Even as roughly 100 Bollywood die-hards turned up for the screening in Delhi, a molotov cocktail was hurled at a cinema in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
In Bihar state, further east, two theatres were set upon by mobs who damaged vehicles, ripped posters and threatened cinema goers.
Fanatics had promised to torch movie theatres screening Padmaavat and to prove their mettle had rampaged through Indian cities in the days before its release, burning vehicles and vandalising malls.
Just south of Delhi a day earlier, a school bus was pelted with stones while another was set alight and used to block a major highway.
Tires were set ablaze in Mumbai, the heartland of India’s film industry, while hardline groups paraded through other cities warning of repercussions if the film aired.
Cinemas in three states took the warnings so seriously they refused to screen it, citing security concerns.
– ‘Atmosphere of fear’ –
But cinema managers in Delhi pressed ahead — even if an “atmosphere of fear” had subdued audiences, as one manager said.
The protesters belonged to India’s Rajput caste who revere Padmavati and insist the film distorts history, even though experts say the queen is a mythical character based on a poem.
As the lights dimmed and the film began the audience was informed the film was fiction.
It also assured viewers no animals were harmed and the producers did not endorse “sati” — an outlawed ritual of wives throwing themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyre.
Opponents — despite not having seen the film — claimed the movie featured a romantic liaison between Padmavati and 14th-century Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji, although the filmmakers denied this repeatedly.
Indeed, there was no such tryst. In fact, not a single scene brings the two characters face to face in the entire three-hour feature.
“All the controversy about a romantic angle between them was absolutely misplaced,” said Suman Sharma, an architect, after watching the film.
Fellow film goer Neha Verma also could not understand the fuss, shaking her head as she left the cinema past the cordon of armed police behind shields.
“It’s a shame that people have been protesting without even bothering to watch it first. The queen has been portrayed so beautifully, no one can raise a finger,” she told AFP.
Even the two female police officers stationed inside the cinema for its duration gave a thumbs up and laughed when asked what they thought of the film.
Despite the hassle, the effort appeared worth it. As the end credits rolled, the audience erupted into rapturous applause.
The radicals staunchly opposed to the film may end up being its biggest saviours: industry watchers predict all the hype will make “Padmaavat” a box office smash.
“The hype is only going to work in its favour. It’s a work of art and deserves to be appreciated by all,” said Verma.