The Bollywood epic Padmaavat opened in cinemas across India on Thursday under blanket security after months of fierce protests.
The film crew has been attacked, sets have been vandalised, hardliners have threatened to mutilate the lead actor and Indian states have pleaded with the supreme court and prime minister to ban the film.
Violent mobs have rampaged through several Indian cities this week in a last-ditch effort to stop the film, which is based on a five-century old poem about a Hindu queen, Padmini, who immolates herself rather than be captured by a conquering ruler.
In Mumbai, mobs have set fire to cars. In Gurgaon, a satellite city south of Delhi, they set fire to a bus and pelted stones. A school bus in Haryana state was attacked on Wednesday, while riot police clashed with hundreds of protesters in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat states.
There was a heavy security presence outside north Indian cinemas screening the film on Thursday. Indian media reported several venues had been attacked in Bihar and a man had attempt to self-immolate outside a cinema in Varanasi.
Police have arrested 18 men in connection with the attack on the Haryana school bus, video footage from which showed children crying in the aisles as sticks and stones were hurled at the vehicle.
The controversy erupted a year ago when rumours spread that the film, starring Deepika Padukone and directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, would depict a love scene between the queen and a Muslim conqueror, Alauddin Khilji.
No such scene exists, but the repeated denials by Bhansali have failed to douse the protests and violence, which swelled again after the release of the film’s first trailer, depicting Padmini dancing and bearing her midriff.
The purported romance and the trailer have been interpreted as deeply dishonourable to Padmini, who is especially revered by Rajputs, one of India’s largest caste groups and one fiercely proud of its claimed origins from north Indian warrior stock.
“She sacrificed her life because of atrocities against women,” said Giraraj Singh Lotwada, the president of the Jaipur-based Rajput Sabha. “She is very respected. We pray to her, take her as our goddess.”
He said he did not endorse violence in name of stopping the film, but added: “This is retaliation, it is counter-violence, in response to the actions of the police.”
Though historians generally argue there is no evidence Padmini existed, her myth has gained enormous symbolic power among Rajputs in a country where religion and caste still shape how most people work, where they live and whom they marry.
Dozens of Rajput women have threatened to burn themselves alive if Thursday’s debut goes ahead. “We are not afraid of death,” their leader told Indian media this week.
Fanatics have threatened to torch cinemas that screen the film in the UK and offered bounties of up to 50m rupees (£550,000) to anyone who beheads Padukone.
Anna MM Vetticad, an Indian film critic and author, said the outrage was partly opportunistic on the part of the Karni Sena, the hardline Rajput group leading the protests.
“Karni Sena was unknown outside Rajasthan so far,” she said. “In 2010 when they vandalised theatres in Rajasthan over a less high-profile film, they barely received attention. By now strategically going after a highly anticipated film like Padmaavat, they have gained national visibility.”
The ruling Bharatiya Janata party was also capitalising on the anger, she said, with some party members issuing threats against the filmmakers. “[They are] obviously pandering to conservatives in the Rajput community, which is a dominant force in Rajasthan, where elections are due this year, and Hindu conservatives at large who are their primary constituency,” she said.
“Nobody here is screening this movie,” said Neeraj Ahuja, the general manager of Wide Angle Multiplex, a large cinema in Ahmedabad in Gujarat. “There is too much disturbance. No amount of security can help. People will buy tickets and then do damage to our property.”
Gujarat was one of several states to ban the film, a decision that was overturned by the Indian supreme court last week, which argued free expression should not be compromised by threats of violence.
The Multiplex Association of India, which represents around 75% of large cinemas, said members in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Goa were also afraid to show the film.
But some analysts believe the controversy might translate into box office success. “The movie will make 1bn rupees over the long weekend from Thursday to Sunday despite the protests,” the trade analyst Akshaye Rathi told Agence France-Presse.