in New Delhi
For a 10-rupee (20p) cinema ticket in Bombay or New Delhi, a film-goer is treated to three hours of escape from the harsh reality of India, to a never-never land of songs and dances, fistfights and romance. This cinema fantasy world has its own crazy laws. Lovers may never kiss, and Hindus and Muslims may be perfect friends, but they never marry each other.
A new film called Bombay was supposed to open across India yesterday. It breaks all the rules, with perilous results. Because it focuses on a forbidden love story between a Muslim village girl and a Hindu reporter, and because it recreates scenes of the terrible 1993 January riots in Bombay, which left more than 700 people dead, the film has stirred up violence and controversy.
In Bombay, the police commissioner suspended its release for eight days, after a bomb exploded outside the cinema hall where it was to be shown. At early screenings in Bhopal, Nagpur and Hyderabad, the film was banned after riots erupted. Such is the furore it has ignited that the film's producer, Amitabh Bachan, India's most popular actor, has received death threats.
Strict Muslims want the film banned. They are enraged that in an early love scene, the Hindu hero has insulted "the principles of Islam", by lifting the Muslim beauty's long veil.
Worse, they accuse the director, Mani Ratnam, of portraying Muslims as the instigators of the Bombay riots when, according to human rights monitors, most of the dead were Muslims. One prominent Bombay Muslim, Abdul Qudrus Kashmiri, said: "The wounds are still raw. All this can arouse passions."
Defending his film, Mr Ratnam, told the weekly newspaper Sunday that Bombay is essentially a love story set against the background of the riots: ``I've made a film that speaks of the futility of violence and rioting."
The Hindu reporter persuades the Muslim girl, played by a well-known Hindu actress, Manisha Koiral, to run off to Bombay, where the couple marries and raises twin boys. The children are caught on the streets in the riots, and a thug douses them with kerosene and challenges: "Are you Hindu or Muslim?" The boys, raised in a secular home, do not know how to answer, but their father rescues them as the thug prepares to toss the lit match.
A Western audience might find all this excessively melodramatic. But for Indians, this is gritty realism.
Mr Ratnam was told by the authorities to delay the film's release until after Bombay's elections, last month. Mr Ratnam was worried. One of the villains in the film closely resembled Bal Thackeray, leader of the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist party that smashed the ruling Congress party in the election.
The producer, Mr Bachan, persuaded the Shiv Sena leader to attend a private screening of Bombay.
The director feared that the mercurial Mr Thackeray would be incensed at being presented as the man who was responsible for whipping up communal violence.
Such is the power that Mr Thackeray weilds in Bombay that he could order his militants to destroy any cinema hall that dared to show the film, and the police would not intervene. But Mr Thackeray's reaction was unexpected.
"At the end of the riots," Mr Thackeray told an interviewer after the screening: "They show Tinnu Anand - that is, me - going around in a car. Then, when he sees the violence, he covers his face in his hands and repents. That is wrong. Totally wrong.
"I never repented. Why should I repent? We didn't start the violence." To appease the Shiv Sena leader, the director agreed to cut out the repentance scene.
Since Mr Thackeray's party was voted into power, Muslims in Bombay have felt jittery. The Shiv Sena leader promised to purge the city's hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi migrant Muslims, most of whom are crammed into slums.
He also threatened that if any Muslim tried to kill him, his militants would "exterminate" the entire Muslim community in the city, which numbers about 2 million.
One Bombay official, a Muslim, Hamida Mistry, said: "All it needs is a spark to trigger the riots that Bombay witnessed two years back. Though I would not say this film will cause riots, my community is angry."
Because of the controversy, Bombay is expected to break box-office records. Its catchy songs are racing up the music charts and many critics praise the director's deft handling of India's communal tensions.