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Indian actors join real world: Communal strife is intruding on the world's largest film industry, Tim McGirk writes from Bombay

FOR YEARS now, Dilip Kumar, one of India's most famous actors, has lived in semi-retirement in the suburb that is Bombay's version of Beverly Hills. It is a neighbourhood of hanging gardens and mansions where many of its old, rich film stars pass their time reminiscing and clawing apart each other's reputations.

Like many filmi actors, Kumar coveted his privacy. There is a high wall, a gate with several uniformed guards, and a grove of ancient banian trees shielding his residence from view. But now, after the recent Bombay riots, every poor man in town must know Kumar's address. And, the film star wants it that way.

'If I were to make a film of the violence, I know just the title. The Rage in Heaven. How about it?' said Kumar, a man in his seventies with a thin moustache and sad, watery eyes. His white salon, all marble in opulent, movie- star style, has been turned into a command centre for riot relief work. Phones jangled. Outside, a lorry pulled up next to Kumar's red Mercedes and began unloading potatoes, while volunteers stacked bundles of donated clothes against the balustrade on the terrace. At the gate, families whose huts had been torched in last month's sectarian riots waited for food, money and legal help.

'It's bad out there, still. A mob had encircled one slum and they were trying to starve to death the Muslims inside. They hadn't eaten for three days. Twice we tried to break through with a police escort and we were forced back. Finally, we were able to get in with a large police posse,' said Kumar.

Bombay's film industry is far bigger than Hollywood's. The 140 films churned out each year are usually packed with shrieky song-and-dance numbers, coy romances and frenzied car chases. The villain always loses and the film-makers rarely burden the viewer with weighty moral dilemmas. Still, while the city's administration collapsed during two months of religious strife, which left more than 900 people dead, Bombay's normally apathetic film community showed remarkable cohesion and pluck.

Film stars and directors led a 10,000-strong peace procession through neighbourhoods gutted by fire and looting. Some went on a hunger strike beside a statue of Gandhi. Others like Shahbana Azmi, who starred in Roland Joffe's City of Joy, moved through the shantytowns where the rioting was worst, soothing tempers. And a delegation of prominent film people, including Kumar, went to Delhi to plead with the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, to save Bombay from being engulfed by religious hatred. Angered by the Congress government's lethargy, Sunil Dutt, a film- star-turned-politician from Bombay, resigned as MP. He and his son Sanjay, an Indian James Dean who is probably the leading male actor, have also been organising aid for the city's 30,000 riot victims.

Until now, religious discrimination was alien to the Bombay film world. There are as many Muslim stars as Hindus and the plots never had a communal twist.

Subhash Ghai, a director, said: 'The heroes of our movies are always secular. If anyone tries to divide by religion or caste, they're the villains.'

Communalism, however, is beginning to intrude into Bombay's cosy film world. Sunil Dutt was attacked twice by Hindu extremist mobs. And more recently, harassment from a group of Hindu neo-fascists, called the Shiv Sena, forced one director to cancel plans to hire a Pakistani Muslim actor. The film industry has enjoyed a strange and often dangerous liaison with Shiv Sena, an organisation behind the latest religious unrest in Bombay.

The Shiv Sena gained strength after the riots, which its leader, Bal Thackeray, described as a victory of the city's Hindus against Muslims. Mr Thackeray is a former satirical cartoonist, a once penniless and timid intellectual who realised in mid-life that he possessed fierce oratorical skills. At home he sits enthroned under a painting of a snarling tiger and he fancies himself as a philosopher-king. 'The powerful third eye of Hinduism is opening,' he proclaims.

Yet Mr Thackeray is feted by the Bombay film people. He is often the guest of honour at their awards banquets and premieres. He is more powerful than Bombay's mayor and, probably, its police chief.

He bestows favours capriciously. The film magazines claim that the Hindu mother of a young starlet turned to the Shiv Sena leader for help in breaking up her daughter's love-affair with a Muslim singer, though Mr Thackeray, ever the gentleman, denies this. A famous actress once appealed to Mr Thackeray after thugs hired by a stage rival kept heckling during her performances. 'He sent over 20 boys with knives. They were ready to stab to death anyone in the audience who booed or walked out during the middle of the show,' said the actress, who preferred not to be identified. 'Luckily, everyone stayed in their seats that night.'

(Photographs omitted)