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
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
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.

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York