Thin crowds greet Bollywood film after rumors set off anger

An Indian municipal worker sweeps a street in front of a poster of Bollywood film "Padmaavat" outside a movie theatre in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The film, based on a 16th century Sufi epic poem, has sparked protests and anger due to allegations of distorting history and is being screened from today. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
FILE- In this Wednesday, Jan.24, 2018 file photo, driver Sukhbir Singh, stands next to a Haryana Roadways bus that was torched by a suspected mob protesting against the release of Bollywood film Padmaavat in Sohna Road, near Guragon, Haryana, India. The film has opened to thin crowds after months of often violent pre-release protests, including death threats for the lead actress amid rumors that the film depicted a relationship between a Hindu queen and a Muslim sultan. (AP Photo/Oinam Anand, File)
FILE- In this Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 file photo, members of India's Rajput community gathers at a mall having movie theaters during a protest against the release of Bollywood film "Padmaavat" in Ahmadabad, India. The film has opened to thin crowds after months of often violent pre-release protests, including death threats for the lead actress amid rumors that the film depicted a relationship between a Hindu queen and a Muslim sultan. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)
A policeman guards as people buy tickets at a movie theatre screening Bollywood film "Padmaavat" in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The film, based on a 16th century Sufi epic poem, has sparked protests and anger due to allegations of distorting history. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Indians line up to watch Bollywood film "Padmaavat" in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The film, based on a 16th century Sufi epic poem, has sparked protests and anger due to allegations of distorting history. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
FILE- In this Jan. 20, 2018 file photo,members of a Hindu organization hold placards as they stage a protest while demanding the ban on the Bollywood film "Padmaavat", in Mumbai, India. The film has opened to thin crowds after months of often violent pre-release protests, including death threats for the lead actress amid rumors that the film depicted a relationship between a Hindu queen and a Muslim sultan. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
Policemen stand guard as people arrive to watch Bollywood film "Padmaavat" at a movie theatre in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The film, based on a 16th century Sufi epic poem, has sparked protests and anger due to allegations of distorting history. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
A policeman stands guard at a movie theatre screening Bollywood film "Padmaavat" in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The film, based on a 16th century Sufi epic poem, has sparked protests and anger due to allegations of distorting history. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
Policemen guard as people arrive to watch Bollywood film "Padmaavat" outside a movie theatre in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The film, based on a 16th century Sufi epic poem, has sparked protests and anger due to allegations of distorting history and is being screened from today. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
FILE- In this Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 file photo, an Indian man walks past a store which was vandalised on Tuesday night by a mob protesting against the release of Bollywood film "Padmaavat" in Ahmadabad, India. The film has opened to thin crowds after months of often violent pre-release protests, including death threats for the lead actress amid rumors that the film depicted a relationship between a Hindu queen and a Muslim sultan. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)
FILE- In this Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 file photo, India's Rapid Action Force personnel perform a flag march through the streets of the city where many vehicles were torched Tuesday night by a mob, protesting against the release of Bollywood film "Padmaavat" in Ahmadabad, India. The film, has opened to thin crowds after months of often violent pre-release protests, including death threats for the lead actress amid rumors that the film depicted a relationship between a Hindu queen and a Muslim sultan. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)
FILE- In this Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 file photo, Bollywood actor Deepika Padukone, left, greets media as she leaves after offering prayers at a Hindu temple ahead of the release of her upcoming film "Padmaavat" in Mumbai, India. The film has opened to thin crowds after months of often violent pre-release protests, including death threats for the lead actress amid rumors that the film depicted a relationship between a Hindu queen and a Muslim sultan. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
A girl looks from the glass of a door as she waits for a friend at a movie theatre screening Bollywood film "Padmaavat" in Mumbai, India, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. The film is based on a 16th century Sufi epic poem, Padmaavat, a fictional account of a brave and beautiful Rajput queen who chose to kill herself rather than be captured by the Muslim sultan of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji. The film has been in trouble since the beginning of the year, with fringe groups in the western state of Rajasthan attacking the film's set, threatening to burn down theatres that show it and even physically attacking Bhansali in January. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

NEW DELHI — There was anger about a rumored romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim invader. There were death threats. There were buses burned and grandstanding politicians.

But when the Indian film "Padmaavat" was finally released on Thursday amid heavy security and breathless TV coverage, Bollywood's latest over-the-top offering turned out to be just that: an opulent period drama with multiple songs and dances and a thin story line and not the slightest hint of the rumored relationship.

At a theater in the Indian capital, dozens of policemen and even a few armed paramilitary troops were posted outside. There were no posters announcing the release and less than a 100 people watched the film in a theater meant for a thousand viewers.

The film is based on a 16th century epic Sufi poem, "Padmavat," in which a brave and beautiful Rajput queen chose to immolate herself in a ceremonial fire rather than be captured by the Muslim sultan of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji.

Over centuries of retelling, the epic has come to be seen as history, despite little evidence. The main character of Queen Padmini has become an object of veneration for many Rajputs, the clans of former warriors and kings from the western state of Rajasthan.

And that is where the film's many woes originated.

Rumors, denied multiple times by the film's producer and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, swirled that the film depicted a romantic dream sequence between the invading sultan and the queen of legendary beauty he madly coveted. As it happens, Queen Padmini and Khilji, the sultan, never interact in the film and are in the same frame for just a few seconds.

The film's sets were vandalized several times by Rajput groups over the last year and Bhansali was manhandled by a mob.

Members of several small Rajput groups continued to be enraged about the film despite Bhansali's protestations.

They kept finding reasons to be enraged.

The film's trailer showed the queen and her female companions dancing during a religious celebration, which angered some protesters. A demure Rajput queen would never be seen dancing in public. In fact, in the film she is seen dancing only in front of her husband.

Others were angry that during the dance her bare midriff was visible briefly — so the filmmakers used special effects to cover her up.

As the film's initial release date of Dec. 1 inched closer, the threats grew and spread outside Rajasthan.

In November, Suraj Pal Amu, a member of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party from the northern state of Haryana, offered 100 million rupees ($1.5 million) to anyone who beheaded Bhansali and lead actress Deepika Padukone.

The head of the Rajput Karni Sena in Rajasthan said Padukone should have her nose cut off — a symbol of public humiliation — for being in a film that he said insulted the famed queen.

Four Indian states, all ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP, said they would ban the film because it hurt local sentiments.

For a while it appeared the film would never be released.

The producers scrambled to save their expensive extravaganza. A group that included representatives of India's former Rajput royal families watched the film before the country's censor board gave it a greenlight. They changed the name from "Padmavati," one of the names of the queen.

They issued full-page disclaimers in every national newspaper, insisting the film paid homage to the valor of the brave queen and the heroic history of the Rajputs.

India's top court had to step in and order the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana to reverse their bans.

But the violence continued up until Thursday, with protesters setting buses on fire, damaging some theaters ahead of the release and blocking many national highways.

Several theater owners didn't screen the film for fear of vandalism.

S. Prema Swarupa, a 21-year-old college student who braved the early winter chill and fears of violence to watch the film in New Delhi, was puzzled by the protests.

"I was definitely scared there would be violence but I can't understand at all what all the protests have been about. There's nothing in this film," he said.

"It was all for nothing."

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