Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire was produced at a time in which lesbianism was very much considered a taboo subject in India. While Mehta has since clarified that her film is not as much about queer identity as it is about the choices of women, it was the concept of female-female desire that allegedly threatened Indian culture. Fire broke down the barriers between Indian culture and sexuality by placing two women’s narratives at its forefront and was the first Bollywood film to do so in such an explicit manner. The story which takes place in the film and the story of the film reflect the changing attitudes of neoliberal India toward non-heterosexual relationships in the 1990s, but also reflect the challenges of expressing non-conventional sexual intimacy. Interestingly, Fire manages to avoid both the Indian patriarchal discourse of women’s sexuality and the Euro-American conceptualisation of homosexuality by treating women’s sexuality as not strictly lesbian. Thus, Mehta escapes the binary of homosexual and heterosexual desire, which have been associated with East-West discourse, and instead sheds light on female desire, self-worth, and identity.
Fire follows the story of an extended middle-class family living in New Delhi. The two brothers, Ashok and Jatin, are married to the female protagonists, Radha and Sita. Trapped in unhappy marriages, Radha and Sita form a romantic relationship while continuing to navigate the domestic space of the heterosexual home. This falls apart when Ashok discovers them engaging in a sexual encounter, and they subsequently leave the home together. The powerful ending reflects the importance of the female body as a form of resistance to patriarchal domination in India, as well as women’s ability to leave “home.” Mehta uses the concept of “home” in Fire to criticise diasporic cinema: while concepts of home and diaspora are often used to create a nostalgia of “prior culture”, she conveys the diaspora of the family home as a forestaller of female sexuality.
Contrary to traditional diasporic cinema, characterised by an appraisal of Indian culture for the consumption by Western audiences, Mehta comments on the potentially confining feeling of the Indian home. The traditional portrayal of the home was cultivated in the late nineteenth century by Indian revivalists as a “pure” space of Indian culture, free from colonial encounter. Hence, an ideological struggle about what could be a part of Indian culture and what was “foreign”, dominated postcolonial Indian thought – sexuality became a target of this debate. The “global currency” of the words gay, lesbian, and homosexual have disseminated from the Euro-American world into India; however, Western notions of sexuality do not necessarily coincide with forms of non-heterosexual identity in non-Western regions of the world. In fact, Mehta has been criticised in the misrepresentation of female-female desire for this exact reason.
Outside of India, Fire was praised as ‘ground-breaking’, ‘proto-feminist’, and ‘pre-gay.’ Such definitions imply that India’s culture, and “Third World” culture in general, impedes the visibility of non-heterosexual minorities. Daniel Lak’s review, which was published shortly after Fire’s release, substantiates this incorrect perception: ‘Fire will undoubtedly cause outrage, enlightenment and confusion.’ Lak insinuates that India is a patriarchal space that cannot even produce the capacity for women to imagine alternative sexual desires, which is not the case. Orientalising the attitudes of Indian culture toward sexuality erases alternative forms of queer desire that do not exist in the “Occident.” Indian critics have partially attributed this perception of Fire to Mehta’s representations of both Indian culture and female desire. Madhu Kishwar’s piece in the feminist journal Manushi has bashed Fire as ‘so vicious and personal in its attack that it occasionally borders on the comical.’ According to Kishwar, Mehta stereotypes India in a harmful way, particularly in her portrayal of homophobia: ‘India, despite more than two centuries of western influence and indoctrination, has still not become homophobic,’ she notes. This is true to an extent. Forms of same-sex desire have been prevalent in India since antiquity – homophobia only began to disseminate India during British colonial rule. On the other side of the spectrum, author Ruth Vanita argues that some in India believe homosexuality to be imported from the West. This is largely because the Western notion of queerness has been globalised in the postcolonial world, burying any indigenous sexual cultures. Fire’s focus on an Anglophone middle class family perhaps reinforces the idea that lesbianism is a Western concept – the film is in English, suggesting that the Indian language is incompatible with “progressive” ideas.
The main concern of the Hindu Right’s protestors with Fire was that its representation of lesbianism is ‘a Western contaminant threatening to destroy Indian culture.’ Subsequently, the Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist group began to protest screenings of Fire from November 1998, storming theatres in Mumbai, burning film posters, and damaging ticket counters. The violence also spread to Delhi. Thus, criticisms of Fire came both from feminists who were displeased with Mehta’s representation of homosexuality, and from right-wing nationalists who worried that the institution of marriage would collapse.
Conversely, Fire attracted its fair amount of positive attention. Gay and lesbian groups in India opposed the Hindu Right by substantiating the importance of lesbian identity. In Delhi, they came together to defend a screening of Fire, stating that ‘lesbianism is not alien to Indian culture.’ Similar to Kishwar, lesbian rights supporters argued that homosexuality has always been a part of Indian culture and questioned why it is such a taboo subject. In contrast to the assertion of the Hindu Right that lesbianism was imported from the West, they excavated stories about instances of lesbianism within ancient Indian culture. The Campaign for Lesbian Rights was established as a result of Fire’s controversy and invigorated debates surrounding the criminalisation of homosexuality, inherited by British colonialism. Meanwhile, the film itself won many international awards, including the Chicago International Film Festival for Shabana Azmi’s role as Radha, and the Barcelona International Women’s Film Festival. Azmi, an already well-respected Indian actress, was extremely intrigued by Radha’s character:
I really loved Radha. She’s a person that has played by all the rules and has got nothing in return, and so finally decides to breakaway. I think a lot of times when we are making feminist cinema, then we also tend to make the characters extremely strident. She never becomes strident and yet she is able to make a point. I found her really attractive.
Undoubtedly, Radha’s character provided a lever for Indian women who perhaps felt confined in their traditional roles and reflects Mehta’s own experience. She states that the film is much deeper than sexuality – ‘It’s about my roots, about arranged marriage, about that whole weight of tradition.’ The intimate relationship begun between Radha and Sita offers a new way of living for them as the women oppose their traditional roles within patriarchal bourgeois society to pursue their own desires. This in itself is very liberating, especially since their burgeoning homosexual desire was navigated within a traditional female space, the heterosexual household. Thus, Mehta depicts Radha and Sita’s relationship as situational in a much larger criticism of Hindu patriarchy. This contradicts the idea that Mehta’s lesbian representation is Occidental, as she places a local version of female-female desire at the forefront of her film. However, there is still a large debate over whether Fire did create a dichotomy between Indian conservatism and Western liberalism through its Anglophonic nature.
Fire is an important piece of Indian cinema for a number of reasons. It contributed to India’s feminist movement by recognising the presence of patriarchal structures of power in domestic spheres. It gave visibility to India’s non-heterosexual population and gave rise to new discussions over lesbianism’s presence in Indian culture. It marked the globalisation of queerness as Western notions of LGBT identity began to disseminate the developing world. Most significantly, it demonstrated that Indian culture is not static and nor should conceptions of sexuality be.
Written by Kat Jivkova
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