Culture Clash: Kashmiri Militant Takes On Bollywood

23 January 2009
The Guardian

New Delhi: Think of it as the fundamentalist meets the femme fatale. In court. Daggers drawn. In one corner, Asiya Andrabi, the leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat, the Kashmiri women's morality brigade, a woman so committed to Kashmiri separatism that her sons are already pledged as martyrs to the cause. In the other, the Bollywood star Bipasha Basu, a woman whose first name means 'fetterless, unbound', and whose sultry films have lived up to that billing. In a move that has critics intrigued and Kashmiri separatists appalled, the actor is to play Andrabi in the film Lamhaa, which seeks to dissect the Kashmiri muslim movement in India. Andrabi is unimpressed. 'I will not tolerate any Bollywood actor playing my role,' she told the Guardian. She sent a legal notice to the hotel in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, where the film crew were staying last week, indicating her intention to take action. The film unit had left the city but Andrabi is not easily deterred. 'If I find the film objectionable, I'll take legal action to shut it down,' she said. The stand-off is the latest and most improbable confrontation in the long struggle between Muslims in Kashmir's idyllic Srinagar valley and the Indian government. The two women could not be more different. Andrabi, 45, set up Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Nation) in 1981 after graduating in biology and biochemistry. In public, she only appears fully veiled and covered. She has spent years in jail, and her most recent incarceration was during Kashmir's state assembly elections last month. Her husband has also been imprisoned for his part in the Kashmiri separatist movement and they have named one of their two sons Muhammad bin Qasim, after the Indian subcontinent's first Muslim invader. When not campaigning on the streets of Srinagar, Andrabi teaches Arabic and Islam to girls, and believes the world is divided into two 'nations', Muslim and non-Muslim. Basu has been one of Bollywood's most coveted sex symbols since her debut film in 2001, and has an altogether more liberal approach to dress and deportment. Ben Kingsley is said to have hailed her as 'India's Sophia Loren'. She was 'flattered' when Richard Gere described her on Indian television as 'sexy and hot', has featured in steamy scenes on screen and was photographed kissing footballer Cristiano Ronaldo at a party in Lisbon. Her boyfriend is John Abraham, another Bollywood sex symbol. Both women have had their brushes with controversy. Andrabi first made news when her burka-clad followers went round Srinagar tarring film posters showing women less covered than themselves. She has conducted other aggressive campaigns against women and even schoolgirls appearing unveiled on the streets, against cyber cafes and restaurants frequented by young couples, against liquor shops and prostitution and even against dowries. Basu's headline-grabbing escapades belong to a different genre. A well-known Mumbai plastic surgeon once alleged the Bollywood star had not paid him for breast implants (she denied having implants). Public uproar led her to blame the Ronaldo kiss on an 'out of context' photograph and after failing to show up in time for an India Day parade in New Jersey, Basu alleged she was 'harassed mentally and physically' by two men escorting her to the event. But like Loren, Basu also aspires to recognition as a serious actor. This is what got her into Lamhaa, directed by Rahul Dholakia, whose debut feature, Parzania, was a highly acclaimed film set amid horrific anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. The film was suppressed in the state, which is ruled by rightwing Hindus. 'We've a strange equation,' the star says of the director. 'He looked at me at the start and asked if I'm a method actor. I liked that. It showed the director had enough respect in me to first find out what kind of an actor I am.' Dholakia, who grew up in Kashmir, said that he wanted to make 'an absolutely positive film about Kashmir and its people'. To make doubly sure, before he began shooting he met and talked to important separatist leaders in Srinagar, including Andrabi. 'He told me that he was determined to show the reality, how the Kashmiris had been brutally treated by the security forces,' said Andrabi, by telephone from Srinagar. 'I told him, how is it possible, you will not be allowed. He said he can do it.' Even as Dholakia began shooting last year, word spread that some of the film's characters were based on important Muslim separatist leaders, such as Andrabi, Syed Ali Shah Geelani of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Shahidul Islam, a former insurgent commander. But only Andrabi has taken serious umbrage, after complaining that Dholakia did not stick to his bargain to show her the film script. The undelivered notice from Andrabi's lawyer said: 'My client is a profound follower of Islam and is pardah nasheen (veiled) ... So she doesn't want her character to be portrayed by any actress in the movie who is incompatible with her virtues.'