Hindus smash up cinema after Bollywood breaks lesbian taboo

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Hindu extremists laid siege to a Bombay cinema yesterday, smashing windows and burning effigies on the street outside, demanding that the screening of a new Bollywood film be stopped.

The reason for their anger was that the film, Girlfriend, breaks a taboo by depicting a lesbian relationship. For the 100 or more right-wing students who attacked the cinema, that is offensive to "Indian culture".

Girlfriend is an unlikely rallying point for India's gay community. In the words of one local reviewer, it "treats lesbianism as a psychopath's sickness that needs to be treated". The plot involves two women in a relationship, one of whom becomes attracted to a man. Her partner, who became lesbian after being abused as a child, turns violently on the male interloper.

However, the activists from the students' wing of the far-right Shiv Sena party, who attacked the Bombay cinema showing Girlfriend yesterday, were not interested in the niceties of the film's treatment of lesbianism.

For them it was enough that the film even mentioned the subject, let alone that it contained physical depictions of lesbian sex, in the form of kissing and petting. India's board of censors have ensured that what is depicted is tame compared with what Western audiences are used to.

Censorship rules are strict in India, and no nudity is allowed in the world's biggest film industry. Nor is "profanity" permitted, and in the standard Bollywood romantic fare, the camera tends to cut to pictures of flowers blooming whenever things on screen threaten to get remotely steamy.

Girlfriend pushes it a little further, according to the Shiv Sena activists who picketed the Bombay cinema yesterday.

"The film has some lesbian scenes and we got many complaints from the public, especially women, so we decided to take action," said Nitin Amberkar, one of the activists, before excitedly tearing up posters of the film. In the end, the showing had to be abandoned.

A similar attempt by Shiv Sena activists in the northern Hindu holy city of Varanasi failed, primarily because only 20 protesters turned up to vandalise the cinema, and a screening there went ahead as planned.

The incident may seem like a storm in a teacup, but it has highlighted the struggle for India's identity, between those who want to keep the country's tolerant secularism, and the Hindu far right, which in its most extreme forms is close to fascism.

The far right's narrow view of India's Hindu identity ranges across culture and politics and has been blamed for more sinister events such as the Gujarat massacres of two years ago.

But the activists of Shiv Sena, who smashed up a couple of cinemas yesterday, appear not to have kept up with current events. The political climate in India has shifted against them with last month's decisive defeat of the right-wing BJP-led government in national elections, and the victory of the Congress Party, which campaigned on a platform of tolerance and religious minority rights.