Star's arrest worries the film industry: Indian cinema is no longer popular with politicians, writes Tim

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A MACHO Bombay film star's penchant for collecting guns has exposed the hidden links between the Indian film industry, the largest in the world, and Bombay's notorious underworld.

But the arrest of Sunjay Dutt, who usually plays a singing, dancing, bemuscled hero, has also plunged the Bombay film world into a witchhunt similar to Hollywood's anti-Communist purge in the 1950s.

The Indian police and press, goaded by Hindu extremists, are persecuting some of the most famous actors, actresses and directors in 'Bollywood'. They are accused of being Pakistani spies and terrorists, and powerful politicians have stopped currying favour with film stars.

Dutt, 30, is one of India's hottest actors, and his latest film is aptly titled Khal-Nayak, the Anti-Hero. Much of the action takes place inside a prison, which is where the actor now finds himself. Two film and video producers, Hanif Kaoawala and Samir Hingora, allegedly confessed to giving Dutt a new AK-56 assault rifle for his gun collection.

Under police interrogation, the two well-known producers also revealed that they had acted as agents for Dawood Ibrahim, a Bombay gangster living in Dubai. Ibrahim, along with Pakistani intelligence services, has been linked to the 12 March bombings in Bombay that killed more than 300 people.

Even from Dubai, Ibrahim's tentacles reach everywhere in Bombay. He reportedly owns more than 200 buildings, smuggles drugs and gold with impunity and has enough clout to arrange for rival gangleaders to die conveniently in shoot-outs with the police. A Bombay police commissioner, M N Singh, also claimed recently that Ibrahim and other mob chiefs use their dirty money to bankroll the making of hundreds of Indian films every year.

During elections, Ibrahim's thugs reliably delivered the vote in the city's festering slums and - until the Bombay bombings - his criminal activities went unchallenged by local state politicians.

There was never any link between Dutt and the underworld, aside from his purchase of the assault rifle. Yet he was arrested on 19 April under the tough Indian anti-terrorist act, and his trial was due to begin yesterday.

The backlash against Dutt panicked the film community. Bal Thackeray, leader of the powerful Hindu extremist group Shiv Sena, exerted pressure on the producers of Khal-Nayak to freeze its release. In Mr Thackeray's bile-soaked newspaper, Dutt was branded as a Pakistani spy.

Then the attacks spread to Sunjay's father, Sunil, an actor turned Congress MP, along with the veteran star Dilip Kumar, and the actress Shabana Azmi. During the recent Bombay riots, Sunjay's father, Kumar and Azmi mobilised the film community to help Hindu and Muslim riot victims, and they also blamed the Shiv Sena for sparking off the communal fighting.

Mr Thackeray retaliated by accusing them of 'suspicious behaviour' during the riots and has urged good Hindus to boycott their films, too.

Sunil Dutt lost his protection from the ruling Congress party after criticising the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and the then defence minister, Sharad Pawar, for failing to halt the January riots. Sunjay's harsh punishment by the police is seen by the press and the Dutt family as revenge for Sunil Dutt's breaking party ranks.

The film community, instead of rallying to the defence of the Dutts, Kumar and Azmi, sent a delegation on 23 April to see the Shiv Sena leader. The gist of their pleas, according to a Dutt family friend, was: 'Even if Sunjay is a terrorist, at least spare us.'