how to see what you can’t
by Douglas Messerli
Deepa Mehta (screenwriter and director) Fire / 1996
Put simply, Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire is arguably the most profound cinematic representation of Indian lesbianism to date. Unquestionably it has had the most profound effect on the subcontinent’s LGBTQ community of its day, particularly when one recalls that India did not fully embrace lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender rights until 2018.
As Dipanita Nath wrote in The Indian Express in 2016 “Nearly 20 years ago, unaided by Twitter and Facebook, a film went viral in India. Fire was the first in mainstream Indian cinema to explore homosexual love. It introduced a taboo subject to the audience of the world’s largest film-producing and film-viewing nation. Off screen, it was the target of vandals, spawned a civil society movement, led to adjournments in Parliament and exposed men’s underwear as agitprop. In the year of its 20th anniversary, Fire retains its position as a relevant reference for films on gender relationships in India. Last year, the British Film Institute selected Fire as one of its top 10 feminist films.”
The plot of Mehta’s movie is quite straightforward, expressed clearly so that no one watching it might confuse its sympathies. The work begins with the marriage, by arrangement, of the beautiful woman Sita (Nandita Das) to Jatin (Javed Jaffrey). Already on the third day of their honeymoon, on a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, Jatin makes it quite apparent that he does not love his bride.
Although little is outwardly expressed about their relationship, Mehta makes it clear that it is parallel to Jatin’s obsession with his Chinese lover Julie (Alice Poon), who has refused to marry him because of his demand that she live in the traditional marital situation in which Sita now finds herself. Jatin too spends most of his nights with Julie, and the director makes the connection between the two brothers’ objects of affection by pausing over the kiss of respect that Ashok places on Swamiji’s foot before quickly shifting to a scene in which Jatin continues to kiss Julie’s feet. Ashok also provides his Swamiji with regular payments to help cover expenses for his medicine to ease the mentor’s hydrocele condition resulting in the swelling and enlargement of the testicles, while Jatin pays regularly for Julie’s expenses. In short, both these brothers prefer the company of others than the two women with whom they have wedded.
Is it any wonder that, even without even knowing all of these facts, Sita, after meeting the family, rushes into her bedroom to remove her sari and put on a pair of blue jeans to dance in celebratory memory of her youthful modernity? She has been suddenly dropped into a paternalistic world which is almost utterly foreign to her. Biji rings her bell in anger when she sees Sita out of her traditional dress. And throughout Mehta’s subtle interweaving of images and sound that reveal a far greater profundity than the plot, bells are used to remind the characters that they have stepped beyond the traditional values.
Radha, we soon discover, has long been living in a situation quite similar to the one with Sita is now suddenly faced, for it was when she discovered that she was infertile that her husband took up with the religious prophet who insists sexual contact should be permitted only as a means of procreation. Accordingly, Ashok, in his attempts to qualm desire, has not slept with his wife for 13 years, putting his commitment to celibacy to the test by lying next to Radha for long hours while completely motionless. For Radha marriage if not just symbolically a living death, but represents an actual stasis, a paralysis that has stricken her as surely as it has her mother-in-law.
Similarly, while Ashok and Jatin almost passively adore the embodiments of their loves, Mandu sees his own body as something to be pleasured, sneaking up Jatin’s porno tapes into the family apartment and, while pretending to watch Biji’s favorite Bollywood renditions of Hindu myths, jacking off, while old woman endlessly rings her bell in frustrated disdain.
Some US critics complained that the love scenes between the women were hidden in the shadows or, to quote San Francisco Chronicle critic Peter Stack, that the movie “is lacking a sense of fire.” Roger Ebert, who has long been diffident about LGBTQ movies, even felt the film “is all but stolen by Chowdry, as the servant who lurks constantly in the background providing, with his very body language, a comic running commentary detailing the situations....” I have no comprehension of how the villain of this work might be seen as more important than the love of these two beautiful women—who Mehta does show kissing, stroking one another’s breasts, and embracing in bed—might be of lesser interest than the sculking masturbator who, again out of paternalistic concern, reveals the lovemaking of Radha and Sita to Ashok. Perhaps men simply want a clearer picture of lesbian lovemaking so that, like Mandu seeks, it might sexually excite them. But then Mehta’s film is not really about “lesbianism” as much it is about two women coming to love one another enough to determine to leave their husbands and live the rest of their lives together, willing to forever leave behind the walking dead. I might remind those who wanted to see more hot action, moreover, that Radha’s mother long ago successfully taught her: “You just have see what you can’t see.”
The fact that in order to accomplish this Radha actually has to endure a real fire like the ancient goddess Sita of myth—which her husband once again passively observes as her headdress bursts into flames—speaks of the literalness of his gender. If in that act she symbolically proves the sacredness of her love for the contemporary Sita, it hardly matters since she has already long ago proven it in her actions, like Nora of A Doll’s House opening the door and slamming it behind her.
Although Fire passed the Indian censor board, predictably it immediately created a storm in the press, popular politics, and parliament. It first screened to full houses in November 1998.*
On December 2nd, however, over 200 Shiv Sena members (India’s right-wing Marathi regional political party, which grew out of a Mumbai support of nativist movements) attacked a Cinemax theater in the Mumbai suburbs, smashing its windows, burning theater posters, and shouting slogans. A day later a Regal theater in Delhi was also stormed, one of their spokesmen arguing “"If women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse, reproduction of human beings will stop."
In Rajpalace and Rajmahal crowds scared off audiences, setting some theaters screening the film on fire. Theaters elsewhere soon closed down. But in Calcutta, when attackers appeared, the audience and theater ushers fought back keeping the film rolling. But Chief Minister of Maharashtra Manohar Joshi, a Shiv Sena supporter announced, “I congratulate them for what they have done. The film’s theme is alien to our culture.” Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray compared lesbianism to "a sort of a social AIDS" which might "spread like an epidemic."
By December 5th a coalition of free speech activists, including Mehta, Indian movie star Dilip Kumar, and director Mahesh Bhatt, submitted a 17-page petition to the Indian Supreme Court, demanding that “a sense of security” needed to be provided to movie-goers as well as basic protection for the screening of the film. Mehta herself led a candlelit protest in New Delhi two days later, with the support of 32 different organizations including CALERI (The Campaign for Lesbian Rights) against theater withdrawals of the movie.
In reaction, approximately 60 Shiv Sena supporters stripped down to their underwear, squatting outside of actor Kumar’s house in protest of his support of Fire. 22 of the protestors were arrested and Kumar and others involved with the film were put under police security. Cinemax reopened screenings of Metha’s film on December 18th, but despite the assurance of protection, some theater posters were destroyed. Although the film had been sent back to the Censor Board, in February 1999, Fire was re-released with no cuts, and openings proceeded without incident.
Rather perversely several Feminists also wrote out against Fire’s portrayal of women and gender relations as being too simplistic. Noted Indian feminists, Mary E. John and Tejaswini Niranjana, wrote that the movie reduced patriarchy to the denial and control of female sexuality, continuing, [in summary]:
“Control of female sexuality is surely one of the ideological planks on which patriarchy rests. But by taking this idea literally, the film imprisons itself in the very ideology it seeks to fight, its own version of authentic reality being nothing but a mirror image of patriarchal discourse. Fire ends up arguing that the successful assertion of sexual choice is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition—indeed, the sole criterion—for the emancipation of women. Thus the patriarchal ideology of “control” is first reduced to pure denial—as though such control did not also involve the production and amplification of sexuality—and is later simply inverted to produce the film's own vision of women's liberation as free sexual “choice.”
Whatever subversive potential Fire might have had (as a film that makes visible the “naturalised” hegemony of heterosexuality in contemporary culture, for example) is nullified by its largely masculinist assumption that men should not neglect the sexual needs of their wives, lest they turn lesbian."
I see no assertion in this film whatsoever that sexual choice is the sole and certainly the only condition of the emancipation of women. Indeed, these two women were emancipated long before they met one another, only giving into the traditions and rituals of their married lives, as Shita puts it quite early in the film, because they have been so conditioned to obey them. “Someone just has to press my button and I start acting like a trained monkey,” she laments as the women suffer without food or water a day of religious significance.
I don’t see them having determined to leave their husbands, moreover, simply because they have fallen in love and sexually chosen to involve themselves in a lesbian relationship. Nor have they chosen to involve themselves in a sexual relationship with one another because they are maltreated by their husbands. The way I perceive it that these women having simply lived lives closed off from such close female bonds had never before the opportunity to explore their sexualities. Their love for one another was not simply out of their husband’s maltreatment, but rather arose with their observation and appreciation of one another’s personalities and bodies.
And, most importantly, they did not leave their husbands because they had found love with another, but strengthened by one another through their love, determined they could finally make the break from the binding traditions that had held them in patriarchal obedience. Radha, in particular, stayed behind for precisely the opportunity of expressing to her husband not just the fact that he had ignored and maltreated her, but to force him perhaps to face up to the fact that in his obsession with Swamiji, he himself had a queer, possibly even chaste homosexual relationship with his so-called teacher, just as Sita might have helped her husband realize, had she known his full history, that his relationship with Julie was based on a kind of self-hatred and attraction to the other, an exotic outsider whom he might also desire to be. These women liberated themselves not just out of their displeasure with the way their husbands had treated them, but out of their recognition that almost all patriarchal notions were based on a sham, including a failure to recognize the essence of one’s own sexual desires.
Sita and Radha did not slam the door out of their newfound love for one other, but out of their recognition that the system in which they had defined their lives no longer had any meaning, surely at the heart of all feminist assertions. Like the mythical Sita, Radha had long before come to know herself well enough that she felt she was safe from any male demand of a trial by fire. And surely the contemporary Sita would had eventually left her husband even if she had never met her sister-in-law.
Mightn’t a lesbian, I would finally ask, find female liberation in her variant sexual choice? Certainly in finally recognizing myself as a gay man I equally came to perceive just how ridiculous all the paternalistic values of the normative society in which I had been raised had been. Sex can often be a window that reveals alternate views of religion, culture, and society in general. It’s never been an issue of one or the other. Just as a shift in sexual orientation does not necessarily mean that one has abandoned paternalistic values, so too does the fact the shifting the focus of one’s sexual desires does preclude the recognition that paternalistic values are a danger for oneself and the society. Clearly, these women are not at all simplistic but have come to recognize both who they are sexually and how the values they previously subscribed to helped to delimit their lives.
Ultimately, it’s not Mehta’s film or her characters which are simplistic, but the arguments against her powerful character’s simultaneous discoveries of themselves and each other. Radha learned from her mother how to see the ocean by looking through her fingers.
*The information below was gleaned from Wikipedia and several Indian newspapers.
Los Angeles, January 9, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).