The ‘Fire’ Controversy 

Newsletter Feb 1999 

On 3rd December 1998, a small group of Shiv Sainiks attacked a cinema theatre called Regal in Delhi against the screening of ‘Fire’. They tore down the hoardings and smashed window-panes, creating terror amidst the public and the theatre management. It was part of a series of orchestrated attacks on theatres showing ‘Fire’ in different parts of the country. Four days later, on 7th December 1998, a lively and effective protest against the Shiv Sena’s hooliganism was organised outside the same theatre. The well-attended demonstration included representatives from around 32 organisations including women’s groups, gay and lesbian rights groups, democratic rights organisations, theatre professionals and film makers. Demanding the freedom of speech and expression and the recognition of lesbianism in India, the groups present gave a fitting response to Shiv Sena who had declared lesbianism as immoral and anti-Indian.

The Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal had attacked two theatres in Bombay on 2nd December 1998. Attacks in Delhi and other places followed. These attacks on the screening of ‘Fire’ by the forces of Hindutva resulted in the theatre-owners stopping the screening of the film producing a virtual ban on the film - a private ban imposed by muscle power depriving the public of its right to view and judge a film that had been passed by the censor board. Before examining the reasons which have provoked the chauvinistic right-wing so much, a brief review of the film will not be out of context.

The film :The story and the limitations

‘Fire’ is a portrayal of the exploration of women’s sexuality and loneliness within marriage. Director Deepa Mehta has shown a conventional Indian joint family setting with the elder brother neglecting his wife [Shabana Azmi] as she cannot bear him a child. A marriage [with Nandita Das] is arranged for the younger brother despite the fact that he is obviously involved with another woman. Besides these characters, an invalid mother-in-law and a living-in servant are the others who complete the conventional family set-up. Two wives are the protagonists caught in a situation that offers no hope or happiness. Neglected by their husbands and catering to the mundane chores of the house and the restaurant the family runs, they reach out to each other - emotionally and physically.

The film has a very sensitive portrayal of the intimacy of two women including their sexual intimacy. At least two other Indian films (‘Umbaratha’ in Marathi and ‘Subah’ in Hindi) have fleetingly shown lesbian intimacies in films. However, in ‘Fire’, their developing lesbian relationship has been shown at length unlike in the earlier films. But this achievement is partly undermined by showing it as an outcome of the denial of happiness and fulfilment for both women in their marriages. While the causes underlying the physical attraction are no doubt open to interpretation, it needs to be stressed that lesbianism needs no justification. As this relationship grows, it is also made light of through derisive humour as seen through the eyes of the mother-in-law and the servant who are in the house all day long.

If the exploration of sexuality is a major concern of the film, it is a pity that the issue of masturbation has been used for comic relief. While the search for sexual fulfilment is shown in all its grace in the case of the main characters, the same has been used to cause humour in the case of the servant. The conflict and guilt associated with masturbation is likely to get further reinforced with such rendering of the act. Finally, using a servant for comic relief is an age-old tactic of mainstream cinema that the film maker has fallen prey to, in the process of exploring an alternative theme.

Yet another stereotype portrayal that the film-maker makes full use of is in the depiction of the second brother’s lover. The portrayal of a ‘mistress’ is necessarily that of a woman running a beauty parlour, where unsavoury deals are alleged to occur ever so often. She is single and of Chinese origin. Interestingly enough, she is economically independent and stated not to have opted for the confines and responsibility of a joint family. She is sexually fulfilled and is in no pain or dilemma of her choices. This strong character is of no interest to the film-maker who has used her in vampish overtones to explain the younger brother’s lack of interest in his marriage. Thus, the stereotypical use of a ‘chinky-eyed’ woman as the sexually active and liberated one, stands out in sharp contrast to the film-maker’s professed pro-woman concerns.

The entire film has a running thread of the great epic Ramayana with its patriarchal values highlighted befitting the traditional family structure depicted. This depiction of the Ramayana also steps into the real story. When the elder brother confronts his wife at the end of the film, the kitchen literally sets on fire and she walks out unscathed. The use of Ramayana is thus unnecessarily stretched when the agni-pariksha takes place in a literal sense.

The film ends on a positive note as the characters exercise a choice based on the affirmation of lesbian love. They meet in a Sufi place as they run out of their house to begin a new life. They move out of the suffocation and emptiness of the family in a quest of new life. They abdicate their social and material privileges in the exercise of this choice. The film is thus a critique of the institution of family and compulsory heterosexuality. It is a rare achievement in a society embedded with patriarchal and fundamentalist values where women’s sexuality is striving to find expression.

Director Deepa Mehta has been in the limelight since the virtual ban became operative. In the midst of all the controversy, the film maker Deepa Mehta, denies that ‘Fire’ is a lesbian film though it was screened in a gay and lesbian film festival in the US in June 1997, and that most of the awards it has won, have been at gay and lesbian festivals. Posters in Europe proclaim it as a lesbian film while in India she categorically denies it as a lesbian film leaving one wondering whether she has been more interested in the marketing of the film and whether the story of ‘Fire’ has just provided the right material for attaining wide publicity. The association of Bobby Bedi, producer of ‘Fire’ and ‘The Bandit Queen’ also invites thought about the how much commercial interests have governed the decision to make such a film. In fact, in a variety of interviews, Deepa Mehta actually appears to be squeamish about lesbian relationships.

Despite its shortcomings, the message that ‘Fire’ conveys needs to be defended. Both cinematically and thematically, the film inspires many critical discussions and the attacks by Shiv Sena has made it the focus of many interesting debates currently taking place in the mainstream media. Needless to say, the issues raised by the film and the controversy that surrounds it are far more crucial to us in the women’s movement.

The Hindutva ideology and Women’s sexuality

Several spokespersons of the Shiv Sena have publicly expressed their grievances against this film. In one instance, they do acknowledge the existence of lesbianism but feel it need not be exhibited in this manner. Does the fact that society is taking its own time to come to terms with lesbian relationships necessarily imply that such relationships need not be portrayed in a film? Preventing screening of a film that has got an ‘A’ certificate and passed by the Censor Board is an assault on the rights of all adults who can choose to see it or not, like it or reject it. What is it in ‘Fire’ that is so threatening to the Shiv Sena? What is it that they find so objectionable for Indian adults to be exposed to? Their paranoia is based on a rigid adherence to an ideology that upholds the institutions of marriage and family. Any departure from this norm is a violation of the established code they advocate. And the film has attempted this departure. It is precisely for this reason that the self-proclaimed custodians of Indian morality are shaken.

The women’s movement has, over the decades, exposed the exploitation of women inherent in marriage. While marriage and family supposedly give women a sense of security, identity and respectability, the film reflects the loneliness and emptiness of women’s lives within these institutions. The interests of fundamentalist groups like the Shiv Sena lie in trying to control and repress women’s sexuality through taboos in the name of religion and tradition. Therefore, while exposing the hollowness of marriage, when the exploration of women’s sexuality becomes the focus of a film, it is bound to cause chaos among the saffron brigade.

The liberation of women along with the changing notions of women’s sexuality in a society that thrives on keeping women in shackles is a threat to the builders of Hindutva. In the words of a leading figure of the Mahila Aghadi (women’s wing) of the Shiv Sena - ‘If a woman can have physical relations with another woman, what will happen to women and who will carry out the work of human development?’ [Statesman, 4th December 1998]. The recognition of gays and lesbians in a predominantly heterosexual and patriarchal society is an anethema to the Shiv Sena.

Coming under the pressures of a modern society the Shiv Sena has also focussed on organising women. Therefore women were also mobilised to tear down the hoardings of a film based on women’s sexuality - and assert the Shiv Sena’s message of what morality ought to be. It is no wonder that they have resorted to the age-old tactic of using victims against victims. Women’s economic independence is also spouted by these fundamentalists [Jansatta, 22nd December 1998]. Still, granting these half-measures to women is no threat to the patriarchal stronghold - because it is balanced by a superb glorification of motherhood, which is the ideological base of keeping women in control.

The propagation of the mother image as ideal, chaste and pure conceals well the vast reality of women’s subordinate status in society. Women’s sexual role is reduced to that of procreation only. The image of the dutiful wife and the ideal mother ensures the control of women’s sexuality within the exploitative institution of marriage and its expression outside this is a taboo. Lesbianism upsets this world view entirely. The liberation of women from procreation becomes blasphemous.

It would do a world of good if Shiv Sena were to open its eyes to the hypocrisies inherent in marriage and family. But it is not a mere oversight. Being blind to the women’s question is the inherent logic of a relentless pursuit of an ideology that upholds male supremacy and subjugation of women. And what is moral and ideal is defined by this vision. It is in this male-dominated society that Shiv Sena seeks to reinforce notions of impurity attached to menstruation, pregnancy and child-bearing counterposed on the other hand with virginity, chastity and pativrata as being hallmarks of purity. The double standard of morality is unquestioning of male sexuality. It is the control of women’s sexuality by imposing social and moral codes of behaviour that ensures the saffron brigade of its patriarchal privileges in the Hindu Rashtra of its making. The proponents of such an ideology will not tolerate a film like ‘Fire’ which is an affirmation of lesbian love. The Shiv Sena has to publicly acknowledge the reality that marriage can also mean a denial of sexual fulfilment and happiness.

Gay and lesbian groups in response have reminded the public of their existence and the need for recognition. That lesbianism has always existed, despite marriage, is a reality that the chauvinists can no longer ignore. The women’s movement since decades has been opposing patriarchal oppression in the state, society and family. The impact of these ideas of women’s liberation is evident in the spate of news articles, letters to the editor, TV interviews etc. Such an overwhelming response would have been unimaginable some years ago.

The Campaign for Lesbian Rights

Women’s groups in India have been active in fighting many problems within the family structure in order to work towards women’s equality. Fighting against domestic violence, dowry, sati, bride-burning, sex determination and abortion of female foetuses, numerous notable campaigns have been carried out. In all these campaigns, while the family structure was challenged, sexuality as an issue has hardly been spoken about openly. Of late, the women’s movement in India has been open to creating space for discussions on sexuality in its National Conferences [Tirupati 1994, Ranchi 1997]. Yet, there is still a deep-rooted silence on the issue of lesbianism.

Shiv Sena’s attack on ‘Fire’ has helped in bringing to the fore the issue of lesbianism. In the aftermath of the demonstration at Regal Cinema, a number of individuals and organisations have come together to discuss and act upon the issues that have emerged. A loose coalition of groups and individuals have formed ‘The Campaign for Lesbian Rights’. The campaign seeks :

1. to make lesbianism visible and to dispel the myth that there are no lesbians in India.

2. to dispel misconceptions and prejudices about lesbians.

3. public and state recognition of the rights of all lesbians to a life of dignity, acceptance, equality and safety.

The campaign attempts to engage in dissemination of information, public debates on lesbianism and awareness raising in the coming years. This is no small achievement, since it is one of the first such forums of its kind in this city. We need to confront the homophobia that prevails in large sections of this society. The impact of the present controversy on those who are coming to terms with their sexuality can be a major setback. The realisation of being lesbian that is fraught with obstacles in seeking expression can be made doubly difficult. Hence the need to create space for such discussions and take this issue to the public is imperative.

On 17 January, 1999 Saheli organised a public meeting titled, ‘Fire, Lesbiansim and Related Issues’. The discussion was initiated by three members of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights. The meeting was attended by more than 60 people, including representatives women’s groups, gay rights groups, democratic and civil rights’ groups, students and many concerned individuals. It provided a forum for discussion on a wide spectrum of issues, ranging from the film itself, to the travails of growing up as a gay person, the need for public recognition of lesbianism, the social harassment faced by lesbians all over the country, the history of the lesbian movement in India and abroad, the role of women’s movement on the issue and the isolation perceived by gays and lesbians on the failure of activists and organisations working on other rights’ issues to take up or even support the struggle of sexual minorities.

The recognition of gay and lesbian rights is an imperative, not only of the women’s movement, but also of the left, mass movements and all democratic forces. It is only a concerted struggle including all oppressed groups and minorities that can overturn the growing hegemony of the Hindutva brigade.

The continuing oppression and exploitation of women calls for us to define our rights. What we seek to challenge and the choices we make are in keeping with our vision of a new society free from class, caste and patriarchal bondage.

BOX 1:

“We seek the right to make choices about our lives, our bodies, our sexuality and our relationships. Some of us are single; some of us are married. Some of us have our primary emotional/ sexual/ physical/ intimate relationships with men, others with women, some with both. Some of us do not have sexual relationships. We feel that we must evolve the supportive structures that can make all of these choices a meaningful reality.” Excerpt from ‘A declaration by the 6th Nari Mukti Sangharsh Sammelan (National Conference of Women’s Movements), Ranchi. December 1997.

BOX 2:

“We would like to take this opportunity to inform the press and the public that lesbians exist in India. We are here today, we have always been a part of Indian society - witness the extensive yogini temples and lesboerotic sculpture all over India. women will continue to love women for centuries to come. Lesbianism is not specific to any one culture, religion, society, class, language group, or geography. Lesbianism exists every-where that women exist - all over the world.”

Excerpt from the press release issued by Lesbian groups from Delhi and Mumbai. 7th December 1998.

BOX 3:

A history of undermining ‘freedom of expression’ 

The concerted effort of Shiv Sena to thwart the showing of ‘Fire’ does not come as a surprise looking at the past history of Shiv Sena hooliganism. In early seventies, Shiv Sena had opposed staging of a Marathi play ‘Ghashiram Kotwal’ because of the ‘contentious’ portrayal of the lead role Nana Phadanvis. A shrewd brahmin wazir, a man, can exploit women sexually but the playwright and the actors have no right to point fingers at him, to show the ‘other (dark) side’ of his life on stage! Fortunately the play survived the attack.

In recent years, the Hindu brigade has attacked MF Hussain repeatedly for some of his old paintings of the Hindu goddess, Saraswati. Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thakarey has declared a ban on Pakistani cricketers visiting Mumbai and now possibly even the rest of India, and to face severe consequences if the warning is not heeded.

Muslim fundamentalists have had their share of curbing ‘freedom of expression’ by getting a ban implemented for Salman Rushdie’s book ‘The Satanic Verses’ a few years ago when the Congress government was in power.

A group of Neo-Buddhists had threatened to show their muscle power if research and writings criticising Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar were to be published and the then government obliged.

And recently in Mumbai, a play called ‘Me Nathuram Godse Boltoi’ (Nathuram Godse Speaking) was banned on the grounds that it undermined the prestige of Mahatma Gandhi by giving voice to his assassin.

‘Freedom of expression’ should be treated as one of the basic tenets of a democratic society, instead a mockery of it is made for political advantages from certain sections [based on religion, caste, class] of the society and is being used to gain short-term political mileage. Anything done by a minority opinion is getting branded as anti-cultural and anti-national, especially by the BJP-led government. Every effort should be made to stop such an abuse of a democratic right.