Lesbian love that inflames hatred

`If women's physical needs get fulfilled like this, marriage and society will collapse,' said one critic

IF I were that way inclined, I know the woman I would like to spend all my days and nights with. The last time I interviewed her, the photographer, a much-divorced and embittered chap, was so smitten that he later asked me for her address in India.

Adored by hundreds of millions of other people besides the two of us, she is Shabana Azmi, film actress, politician, activist, feminist and ferocious fighter for freedoms and rights. For 25 years she has shone as the top star in Indian cinema, both art-house and popular. Fourteen top awards bear testimony to the power of her work, which was recognised by John Schlesinger; he gave her a key role in his film Madame Souzatska, which also starred Shirley MacLaine. Even more impressively, she has used her stardom to fight for the rights of slum dwellers, with whom she spends much of her time (they tell her that she should pay a little more attention to her clothes and make-up when she is with them, as film heroines are meant to help them forget the dirty deal God gave them), and for women to have control over their lives and bodies.

On top of all this, the woman is also an MP in India's upper house. When you talk to her about her work she reacts with irritation because, with her upbringing, there is nothing at all extraordinary about what she is doing. Her mother, Shaukat Kaifi, was, she says, a truly impressive stage actress, and her father is a well known poet and a leading member of the Indian Communist Party. Her husband, Javaid Akhtar, is currently one of India's most popular poets and songwriters.

All of them have been politically engaged for decades. In recent years this has taken on an urgency because, as liberal Muslims, they have had to take on those who want to reclaim India for Hindus, and those Muslims who are reacting by turning intolerant themselves.

Today Azmi is in serious trouble in all these areas of her life.

In her new film, Fire, she plays a middle-class wife in a traditional home who not only is childless, but is also expected to lie next to her husband without being touched because he is in the process of renouncing sex, just as Gandhi did. A new sister-in-law arrives, who has also been rejected by her husband - because he is in love with another woman, who had to marry to keep up appearances.

The two women end up consoling each other, first in the kitchen while they cook and then later on, tenderly, in bed. It is a lovely, erotic film that also makes some serious points about family, community and the individual in a country where all three are undergoing enormous upheaval, especially in urban areas.

The film has rocked the nation, which was perhaps to be expected. Lesbianism does not exist in Indian consciousness. So much so that no language has developed to describe this human experience, even though in miniature paintings of earlier centuries, gay sexuality is depicted quite openly. If you don't even have the linguistic tools to describe something, you disable it utterly.

What is worrying are the unspoken reasons why politicians are rousing the public to riot against the film, and why mobs are bursting into cinemas and forcing all further showings to be cancelled. Senior right-wing politicians are encouraging this violence. These are reactionaries objecting to the kind of wider changes that Azmi and others have been fighting for. As one of them put it: "If women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage and society itself will collapse."

The protest is, in fact, a concerted move to stop the progress that frightens the kind of people who can feel safe only with an aged, iniquitous, closed world.

They hate the face and voice of modern India, a country which few in this country understand. As that profoundly good writer Sunil Khilnani says in his book The Idea of India, this is because Britons are either committed to the plot line of post-imperial decline and fall, or think of the country as a mystical muddle in which you can only immerse yourself, like those people in the Ganges. But Azmi, Arundhati Roy - who also faced months of public anger for writing about illicit love in her book The God of Small Things - and others like them represent a different reality.

They are strong and self-confident - and so they should be, because India is now among the top industrial nations in the world. They are not "Westernised" in their values, but nor are they prepared to sign up to backwardness in the name of some unnecessary nationalism. We can only hope that the repeated onslaughts on their lives and their work don't, in the end, destroy them. That would be a reason to riot.

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