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Movie bridge to America

- Delhi lifts one ban that kicked in after Devyani’s arrest

New Delhi, June 29: India has allowed the US embassy’s cultural arm to screen films, lifting a ban that was imposed after diplomat Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York late last year.

The American Center in the capital has received approvals from the external affairs ministry to restart its popular weekly film screenings that were stopped in January, senior Indian and US officials have said.

The US centre has also obtained approvals from municipal bodies, an issue the foreign ministry had cited while suspending the screenings, the officials said.

Neither the foreign ministry nor the US embassy has publicly declared the approvals. But the high-security American Center has resumed the movie screenings that are attended by invitation.

Last Friday, it screened The Bridges of Madison County starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. The week before, those invited saw Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, which too stars Meryl Streep, with Robert Redford.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been denied a visa to the US since 2005, is scheduled to be in New York and Washington in September, invited by President Barack Obama.

Modi is also likely to address a joint session of the US Congress. If he does, he will be the sixth Indian Prime Minister to do so.

Referring to the gesture to the American Center, a US official said: “It’s a step towards getting the relationship back where it was. It’s a definite step that shows we can work through our differences. Ahead of the new PM’s visit, every signal tells us there’s reason to be optimistic.”

Lee McManis, the acting spokesperson for the US embassy, did not respond to email queries.

The American Center, just a block away from the bustling Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi, was among several US establishments that felt the brunt of India’s anger at Khobragade’s arrest after she had just dropped her daughters to school.

India, furious over what it saw as a blatant negation of diplomatic courtesies and an unforgivable humiliation of a young diplomat, promptly launched what New Delhi described as “reciprocal” measures but Washington felt was retaliation.

Barricades that had blocked Nyaya Marg — the boulevard in New Delhi’s lush diplomatic conclave that runs in front of the US embassy — soon after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks were uprooted demonstratively by cranes.

The neighbouring American Community Support Association club, which served not just diplomats but American citizens sizzling cheeseburgers and chilled imported beer, was served a warning. The club was told it could only serve diplomats and their families — it enjoys tax-free status because it is meant to cater solely to envoys — and could not exceed a quota of duty-free imports it had been violating.

India pointed out to the American School — one of the city’s most elite educational institutions — that many of its teachers were working without an appropriate visa, an implicit threat in times of reciprocity because the US claimed Khobragade was arrested for visa fraud.

None of these privileges, Indian officials said then, were extended to the Indian embassy in Washington. A request for parking space just outside the mission complex had been denied by the US state department just months earlier.

India, officially, has allowed the American Center to restart movie screenings only after it obtained the required approvals.

US assistant secretary of state Nisha Desai Biswal had, on two visits to India, held meetings with her hosts to iron out the niggles from the Khobragade episode that continued to rankle with the two nations.

Biswal, an official said, articulated American concerns over India’s “reciprocal” steps and requested New Delhi to speed up any approvals the American School and the American Center needed.

Indian officials ruled out the return of barricades that blocked the flow of traffic on Nyaya Marg, or allowing any tax exemptions to the American club if it catered to clients other than diplomats.

But, the officials said, the Indian embassy in Washington has speeded up the issuance of visas to teachers keen to come to the American School.

The targeted American institutions that were the quickest to gain from the conciliation attempts were the two that are also the most popular among sections of New Delhi’s residents.

At least 30 per cent of the American School’s students are Indian, although the fee adds up to $28,000 (Rs 16.8 lakh) a year.

Indians match American nationals in their numbers at the weekly screenings at the American Center, which also boasts one of the city’s best libraries. It also hosts educational fairs for students keen on studying in the US.