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Indian rules for Edwina-Nehru film: no kissing, no holding hands, no love

Plan to turn the affair that lasted a lifetime into a movie raises hackles

The deep and passionate relationship between India's first prime minister and the wife of the country's last viceroy is one of the worst-kept secrets of the Raj. Enduring and complex, the bond between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten lasted until the end of their lives. When she died in 1960, letters from Nehru were scattered across her bed, and when she was buried at sea in the English Channel, he dispatched a frigate all the way from India to drop a wreath of marigolds into the waves.

Yet all these years on, the relationship continues to create controversy. The Indian government, headed by the Congress Party that Nehru once led, has reportedly ordered the producers of a film based on the relationship to rewrite certain drafted scenes if they wish to receive permission to film here.

Now, in the latest twist, the niece of Nehru has stepped in to the controversy, saying she believes the film should not be censored if it portrays the relationship fairly. Yet Nayantara Sahgal, herself an award-winning writer, has also said that claims that her uncle had a sexual relationship with Lady Mountbatten were mere speculation.

"Anybody who claims – any book or filmmaker who claims – that they had a sexual relationship would be conjecturing," she told an Indian television channel. "What they had was a long-lasting relationship of love and friendship. And I think it was a very rare relationship based on a meeting of minds and a genuine respect and admiration for each other."

The movie being planned by Working Title Films is based on the book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann. It is understood that the award-winning director Joe Wright, whose previous films include Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, has been lined up to direct the film, which could star Hugh Grant and Cate Blanchett as the Mountbattens, who came to India to oversee the granting of independence to India, and the Indian actor Irrfan Khan as Nehru.

Several reports in the Indian media claim that the authorities in Delhi have demanded changes to the script in exchange for permission to film. In particular they are said to have forbidden any scene which shows Nehru and Lady Mountbatten kissing, holding hands or using the word "love".

Ms Sahgal said of the reported censorship of the film: "The government should engage with the project... We should keep our climate open to artistic ventures, should welcome filmmakers, they should indeed engage with this project in a constructive way, help and advise in whatever way possible, because if the film is not made here it is bound to be made somewhere else. And what purpose would that serve? Much better if a beautiful, worthwhile film is made here."

The apparent demand put upon the filmmakers underlines the sensitivity surrounding films and books about India's icons and the Hindu religion. Previous projects about the independence leader Gandhi have run into similar problems, while the 2006 movie Water, set in the holy city of Varanassi, stirred huge controversy during location shooting. It was eventually shot in Sri Lanka.

The close relationship between Nehru and Mountbatten was recognised by many at the time. The Mountbatten marriage was famously elastic, though in the 1930s they successfully sued a newspaper over claims that Edwina was having an affair with the American musician Paul Robeson.

The Indian government and Working Title Films have yet to comment on the controversy. Von Tunzelmann, who has been signed up as a consultant to the movie, said she had no information about the reported demands by the Indian government. She expressed surprise, however, over reports that certain scenes would have to be cut.

"I don't mention the physical relationship," she said. "I spoke with the niece at the time and agree with her take on this – you cannot know, the only two people who know are dead... But whether or not they had a physical relationship is a different question to whether or not they were in love. I believe they were."