A Bollywood studio has dismissed a complaint from a group representing oppressed low-caste Hindus, asking for a top actor to be removed from a starring role in a new film because of his background.
Prakash Jha Productions said a Dalit activist group had asked for Saif Ali Khan to be dropped from the film "Aarakshan" (Reservation).
The group said it was "vehemently opposed" to Khan's casting as a Dalit "because he is of Muslim royal heritage", which made him unsuitable for the role.
India's 160 million Dalits were once known as "untouchables" and given the most menial jobs. Many still face discrimination, are forbidden to use communal wells and excluded from social events, despite anti-discrimination laws.
But Bollywood director Prakash Jha, head of the production house, said in an emailed statement that the group's argument was "absurd and totally goes against the spirit of freedom and equality".
He has now sent an open letter to the group, stating that it was impossible to recast the role as shooting had finished.
He added: "India is a fully democratic country with full rights and freedom to tell stories through our movies. Social, political and religious issues can be spoken about and depicted on screen."
The film, which also stars Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, is a drama based on the controversial policy of reserved posts in jobs in government and the education sector based on caste.
Jha said Khan had been chosen purely for his acting abilities and promised to show both sides of the "reservation" argument. The group's call for Khan's removal "increases discrimination", he added.
Saif Ali Khan is a Bollywood A-lister and sometimes referred to as the "chota nawab" (little prince). His father, Mansoor Ali Khan is the ninth Nawab (Muslim prince) of Pataudi and a former India cricket captain.
His grandfather, Iftikhar Ali Khan, the eighth nawab, played cricket for both India and England.