The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Beeline for bite of Meera’s kiss

London, Sept. 24: Asian movie fans in the Muslim-dominated city of Bradford were today flocking to have a nazar of Pakistani actor Meera, who was due to be “in conversation” at a film festival called Bite the Mango.

Her appearance has been well flagged by festival authorities, who said: “Meera ' the star of Nazar and the talk of Bollywood at the moment ' will talk on stage about her work as a Pakistani actor in India and, no doubt, the furore caused by her on-screen kiss with co-star Ashmit Patel.”

The festival’s director, Irfan Ajeeb, who has devoted much energy over the past decade to bringing Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis, closer together through cinema, has concentrated on giving the entries a much needed “Pakistan focus” this year.

“There is more to Pakistani cinema than Lollywood, just as there is more to Indian cinema than Bollywood,” said Ajeeb, whose father Mohammed Ajeeb, a former Lord Mayor of Bradford, was the first Asian to hold such a position in the UK.

Instead of going into local politics, his son Irfan went into organising film festivals, and, though in the early days he was criticised by Pakistanis for bringing “too many Indian movies” into Bradford, his integrity and good faith are no longer questioned.

When Amitabh Bachchan was the star turn one year (he was given a free dinner at a Pakistani restaurant called Pakeezah), Indians and Pakistanis sat side by side in the audience and happily repeated his best known lines.

Yesterday, the 11th festival opened with Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, based on the Bombay blasts but not yet released in India.

“It was fantastic,” enthused Ajeeb Jr, who said the audience at the sellout show was “diverse”. “It was one of the best pieces of cinema I have seen,” he added.

Kashyap himself told an agency after arriving in Britain: “They are saying that the film should not prejudice the accused before the court rules. My contention is that the film is not judging anybody. It’s based on a book which has been out for more than two years. Experimental cinema is not being encouraged and the industry is not used to dealing with anything new.”

Ajeeb backed up the director: “We are deliberately showing this side of Indian cinema. Mango shouldn’t shy away from films like this that have a message; at the end of the day, it reflects the world we live in.”

During last night’s screening of Black Friday, a handful of Hindus, clearly over-sensitive souls, did express their objection by walking out. “This happened during one scene when some Muslims arrested by police are being questioned. They say, ‘Allah is on our side.’ To which, a policeman says, ‘No, Allah must be on our side because he helped us capture you.’ ”

Bradford is a Yorkshire city with over 60,000 Muslims, mainly of Pakistani origin. It has a Sikh MP, Marsha Singh, who represents a heavily Pakistani constituency and is regarded by some Indians as “more Pakistani than some Pakistanis”.

Ajeeb, though, has made great strides in achieving communal harmony through films.

Despite the kissing controversy, he had no hesitation in inviting Meera. “The hardliners in Pakistan were after her blood,” he explained.

“I think it’s brave of an actress to go over to India and do these daring roles. Religion, politics and culture always come into it in South Asia.”

In the last day or two, Meera has been enjoying the attention of papers such as The Times and The Independent as well as the CNN network.

Tonight, she will be asked: “When is a kiss not just a kiss'”

Ajeeb said: “At the moment, she is sitting in a masterclass being given by Mahesh Bhatt ' and Kashyap reminds me of the young Mahesh Bhatt.”

In Britain, where they like gutsy girls, Meera is outdoing Mallika Sherawat in the modesty stakes. She shrugged off the kissing controversy.

“Who cares'” she said. “You see Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone and Angelina Jolie kissing on screen and they are all great actresses. I have to compete with all actresses and I have to perform according to the script.”

She did her best to ruffle some more feathers in Pakistan by commenting: “In Pakistan, girls have very limited thinking. I have moved internationally into India and my destiny is Hollywood.”

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