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Monday, December 14, 1998 Published at 22:36 GMT

World: South Asia

Indian film ignites political controversy

Hindu nationalist Bal Thackeray is the film's staunchest opponent

By the BBC's Sanjiv Srivastaba in Bombay

India's Supreme Court has ordered the government to provide full protection to leading film-makers and others who have filed a petition in support of the controversial film, Fire.

The ruling follows a protest last Saturday by a group of ultra right-wing Hindu nationalists from the Shiv Sena party at the home of an actor Dilip Kumar who has defended the film.

The movie features a lesbian relationship which critics describe as an affront to Indian values.

[ image: Shabana Azmi, the film's heroine, is outraged by the film's withdrawal]
Shabana Azmi, the film's heroine, is outraged by the film's withdrawal
Opponents have attacked cinemas showing the film and the authorities have ordered it to go back to the censors for reconsideration.

Law makers are also divided on whether or not the film is acceptable to be shown to the India's cinema-going public.

Angry exchanges on Monday caused an adjournment of the upper house of the national parliament.

Opposition members of the left and the Congress Party expressed concern over what they said was an obscene demonstration by members of the Shiv Sena, clad only in their underpants outside the residence of Bollywood veteran, Dilip Kumar, who has spoken in favour of the film.

However, the pandemonium in the parliament is unlikely to have much impact on Shiv Sena's leader, Bal Thackeray, who has always positioned himself as an aggressive Hindu nationalist.

In his first statement on the film, Mr Thackeray attempted to turn the debate into a Hindu Muslim issue; a territory quite familiar to him.

[ image: The film's lesbian content is causing the controversy]
The film's lesbian content is causing the controversy
He has objected to the principle characters of the film having the same name as Hindu goddesses and has also taken exception to what he thinks are some adverse references to Indians in the film.

Mr Thackeray says the film screening should only be allowed only after these changes are made.

The Shiv Sena chief also accused the intellectuals of having one set of rules for the Hindus and another for Muslims and said there were protests when Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was banned by the Indian government.

The Indian Supreme Court is to hear on Tuesday a petition filed by leading Indian film personalities who have demanded that members of the Shiv Sena be censured and the government be asked to guarantee the uninterupted screening of the film.

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