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India’s Culture War Stirs Up Trouble In Bollywood

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A politician from India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party shocked the country by offering a 100 million rupee ($1.6 million) bounty to anyone who beheads actor Deepika Padukone, star of the controversial new movie Padmavati, along with the film’s director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali. The threat to the Bollywood figures is just the latest evidence of an escalating culture war in India.


Hindu nationalists have become obsessed by rumors that Padmavati features a romantic dream sequence between a 14th century Muslim sultan and the eponymous Hindu queen. Although Bhansali denies that a love scene exists, Suraj Pal Amu, an official with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, repeated a call for their beheadings on Nov. 19.


The film’s Dec. 1 release in India has now been put on hold, and an extremist group, Karni Sena, threatened to burn down British cinemas that screen the film. Amu resigned on Nov. 29, but critics say the scandal is an attempt by the party to play to its nationalist base and erode freedom of speech.


Under Modi, Hindu nationalists have stoked cultural conflicts. So-called cow vigilantism has surged as mobs target mainly Muslims in the name of protecting cattle, which are sacred to Hindus. In June, a chief minister of the BJP said the Taj Mahal, built by a Muslim emperor, did not “represent Indian culture.” And on Nov. 24, a hanging in Jaipur was linked to the controversy over the movie–perhaps a grim harbinger of things to come in India’s new era of intolerance.

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