In simplistic foreign renderings of India’s social conservatism and extra-judicial censorship, the controversy surrounding director Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire is emblematic. The film is centred on a middle-class, extended Hindu family in New Delhi and the secrets that haunt their relationships. Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) is married to Radha (Shabana Azmi), and is an ascetic who in following the holy man Swamiji has taken a vow of celibacy. Ashok and his invalid mother, the widowed Biji, convince his younger brother Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi) to marry Sita (Nandita Das), however Jatin is in love with the Chinese-Indian Julie, with whom he continues an affair after he is married. Unhappy in their marriages, the sisters-in-law develop an intimate friendship, and then pursue a sexual relationship, with one another. While Ashok, Radha, and Sita run a take-away restaurant, Jatin runs an attached video store from which he rents pornography. The family’s servant, Mundu, regularly masturbates to this pornography and is one day caught by Radha. William Mazzarella (2013) notes that critics who sought to defend Radha and Sita’s affair were often nonetheless compelled to express their disgust at the subaltern male’s masturbation. As the film unfolds, Mundu and Radha each become aware of one another’s secret, and Mundu exposes Radha and Sita as lovers to Ashok. In a climactic confrontation, Radha’s sari catches fire and her husband chooses not to intervene. With the flames expired, Radha leaves Ashok for Sita.
Although Mehta is Indian-Canadian and the film is hardly typical of Hindi film conventions, Fire was one of the first Indian films to explicitly represent same-sex desire. It is highly sympathetic to the two female protagonists, who are largely neglected by their husbands and are required to attend to their invalid mother-in-law’s needs. Released in Canada in 1996, Fire was passed by the Indian CBFC in 1998 uncut and with an “A” certificate and first screened on 13 November that year. Despite critical acclaim, from early December a number of protests were launched at the film’s exhibition, including by female members of the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena in Mumbai (the Mahila Aghadi), and Bajrang Dal members (the militant youth of the Vishva Hindu Parishad organisation) in Surat. Shiv Sena member and Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi, among other politicians of the Hindu right, supported the protests by claiming that “The film’s theme is alien to our culture” and suggesting it promoted acts of perversion to unhappy Indian wives. Mazzarella (2013, 134) notes that “the release of Fire in 1998 coincided with the Shiv Sena’s attempts to hold the BJP to a more hard-line Hindutva politics just as the BJP was tending its national political ambitions by trying to look moderate on communal (that is, religious-identitarian) issues.” That Shabana Azmi is a Muslim and promotes progressive political causes was also a point of contention, with protesters claiming that the Hindu names Radha and Sita, signifying wifely devotion, should be changed. Public debate involving both sides concerned whether homosexuality was rooted in Indian tradition or a foreign import, and despite counter rallies in support of the film exhibitors ceased screenings in New Delhi, Ahmedabad, and Pune (McGirk 1998).
Fire was resubmitted to the CBFC on 4 December 1998. It was re-certified without cuts on 12 February 1999. However in Mumbai the names of the female protagonists were removed. Screenings resumed widely on 26 February of that year. – Liam Grealy
– Ghosh, S. (2010). Fire: A queer film classic. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.
– Mazzarella, W. (2013). Censorium: Cinema and the open edge of mass publicity. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
– McGirk, T. (21 December 1998). Plenty of smoke over Fire. Time.