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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum