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Monday, December 7, 1998 Published at 12:17 GMT

World: South Asia

Plea for court action over lesbian film

Protesters have torn down posters for the film

A group of film-makers, artists and human rights activists have asked the Indian Supreme Court to step into the growing controversy surrounding the film, Fire.

The film, which tells the story the story of two sisters-in-law who have a sexual relationship, has been withdrawn from circulation and referred back to the censors by the Hindu nationalist BJP-led government.

Among those leading the calls for the courts to intervene are the film director, Mahesh Bhatt, who has clashed with the censors before.

He said he deplored the attacks on Fire and the support given them by politicians.

The film's director, Deepa Mehta, said the decision to send her film back to the censors was a tragedy for free speech.

In the past week, there has been a series of protests by militant Hindu groups, who say the film is offensive to Indian culture.

[ image: Shabana Azmi: Condemned withdrawal of film]
Shabana Azmi: Condemned withdrawal of film
The government's decision to withdraw Fire from circulation has been condemned by a leading actress in the film, Shabana Azmi.

In an interview with the BBC, Ms Azmi, who is also a member of parliament, said the government's action "makes a mockery" of the Indian censors' independence and was politically motivated.

Controversial subject

Fire has received widespread critical acclaim.

Three weeks ago, Indian censors passed the film for exhibition in what Ms Azmni said was an indication that the traditionally reserved body "had finally come of age."

But in the last few days, the film has come under attack from the militant Hindu group Shiv Sena which says it is anti-Hindu and damaging to Indian culture.

The president of the group, which is allied to the BJP, says it sends "the wrong message" to Indian society.

The BBC Delhi correspondent, Daniel Lak, says awareness of issues like homosexuality is extremely low in India.

Our correspondent says that those who went to see the film said many in the audience were young, single men, apparently hoping to see nudity or sex on the screen in a country where even overt kissing is cut from locally-produced films.

Political campaign

Shiv Sena activists have attacked a number of cinemas showing the film, including some in the capital, Delhi.

Some cinemas have refused to screen it, fearing they will open themselves to similar treatment.

Ms Azmi said she believed the protests were part of an orchestrated campaign to keep the right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology of the BJP in the news after a poor performance in recent elections.

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