With some honourable exceptions, Bollywood stays clear of tackling social evils for fear the audience might find such fare too heavy. Where would you insert the obligatory song-and-dance routines into stories about female foeticide, dowry deaths or the selling of young girls into prostitution? Where would the romantic element come in?
None of these concerns has deterred director Ajai Sinha, whose new film Khap - Honour Killings has just been released in India, to the fury of conservatives who do not like their traditional custom being questioned. This custom, widespread in north India, dictates that no man or woman can marry if they belong to the same clan. If they dare to do so, the village's khap panchayat (caste council) extracts swift and barbarous retribution: the couple are stoned to death, either by their parents or by the parents and a pack of villagers for 'dishonouring' the community.
Khap features well-known actor Om Puri as Omkar, a village elder who violently opposes intra-caste marriages. His son rebels against the father and goes off to become a human rights activist, severing all his ties with his village. He returns one day to investigate an honour killing but in the process he dies and Omkar experiences a change of heart, abandoning his determination to stamp out such marriages. But now his granddaughter wants to marry within the same caste.
'I wanted to shine a light on these crimes to ask audiences what era we are living in,' says Sinha. 'My basic message is that no matter what your beliefs about caste or marriage, you do not have the authority to kill anyone.'
It's a dark subject but somehow Sinha manages to insert six song-and-dance routines into the film. The critical reaction has been mixed. While some critics have praised Sinha for telling a powerful love story that contains an important social message and also manages to be entertaining, others have panned it, calling it amateurish and cliched.
In Haryana, khap panchayat leaders have denounced the film for portraying them as 'cruel fanatics'.
Yet one of the characters in the film articulates their point of view and speaks in favour of honour killings. 'I wanted to give their side of the story just to show that this idea of not marrying within the same caste was originally not a bad idea. It was about brotherhood and other things, but over time the idea has degenerated,' says Sinha.