Screening of Ignites Violent Protests in India Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s film Fire, the story of two married Hindu women who fall in love with each other, sparked violent attacks on theaters in India in 1998 and ignited debates about lesbian sexuality in India.

Summary of Event

After its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, 1996, Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s film Fire won several awards for its portrayal of a lesbian relationship between two Indian women. The film was not shown in India until November 13, 1998, when India’s Censor Board of Film Certification released the film uncut. [kw]Screening of Fire Ignites Violent Protests in India (Dec. 3, 1998-Feb. 25, 1999) [kw]Fire Ignites Violent Protests in India, Screening of (Dec. 3, 1998-Feb. 25, 1999) [kw]Protests in India, Screening of Fire Ignites Violent (Dec. 3, 1998-Feb. 25, 1999) [kw]India, Screening of Fire Ignites Violent Protests in (Dec. 3, 1998-Feb. 25, 1999) Fire (film) Film;and lesbian sex[lesbian sex] Hinduism, and lesbian sex Censorship;of film in India[film] Lesbian sexuality;in Indian film[Indian film] India;film censorship [c]Arts;Dec. 3, 1998-Feb. 25, 1999: Screening of Fire Ignites Violent Protests in India[2510] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Dec. 3, 1998-Feb. 25, 1999: Screening of Fire Ignites Violent Protests in India[2510] Mehta, Deepa Das, Nandita Azmi, Shabana

Fire opens with the arranged marriage of beautiful young Sita (Nandita Das) to Jatin, the younger brother of Ashok, who is married to Radha (Shabana Azmi), a woman who has long accepted the duties imposed on her by her traditional role as wife. Jatin and Ashok run a video store and restaurant, and when Sita moves into their joint-family life, she quickly learns that her marriage is not going to be the romantic fantasy portrayed in the Bollywood films she loves. Her new husband Jatin carries in his wallet a photograph of his Chinese mistress, and Ashok has devoted himself to a swami who teaches that “desire is the root of all evil.” Consequently, Ashok and Radha have been in a celibate marriage for thirteen years.

As Sita becomes a part of the household, her life comes to match the rhythms of Radha’s life, filled with work in the restaurant, caring for the elderly family matriarch, Biji, and cooking for their household. The two women become friends, and Sita soon finds that she is falling in love with Radha. When she initiates a sexual relationship with her late at night while their husbands are gone, Radha—who is at first startled—soon reciprocates. The awakening relationship between Radha and Sita encourages both of them gradually to change the way they behave at home and to resist the traditional bonds of marriage that have restricted them both. After their household servant discovers that they are lovers and tells their husbands, Sita decides to leave and urges Radha to come with her. Radha follows after an argument with her husband, during which she is nearly burned in a kitchen fire. The film ends with the two women reunited and apparently about to continue their lives together.

Although Fire played for two weeks in India without incident, on December 3, 1998, two hundred men and women from the conservative Shiv Sena political party stormed the New Empire and Cinemax theaters in Bombay. Burning posters of Fire and damaging the theaters’ display cases and a ticket counter, they claimed the film was “against Indian tradition.” Twenty-nine people were arrested in connection with the vandalism, and Bombay theaters stopped showing the film. In Delhi, members of Shiv Sena invaded movie theaters showing the film, causing theater owners to shut down their screenings.

On December 5, six people brought a writ to the Indian Supreme court demanding the right to show Fire and asking for protection at the screenings under the authority of several articles of the Indian constitution. While the Supreme Court debated whether Fire should be screened in India, violent Antigay violence;and film protests[film protests] protests led by Shiv Sena continued throughout India. Simultaneously, the Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI), a coalition of several lesbian organizations, organized counter-protests and held a candlelight vigil in front of one of the vandalized theaters in Delhi. On February 12, 1999, the Censor Board once again released an uncut version of Fire, and by February 25 both Hindi and English versions of the film reopened in India without additional violence.

Western audiences primarily viewed Fire as a lesbian film, but within India and the Indian diaspora Fire was clearly embedded in historical debates about Hinduism, Western colonialism, obscenity standards, and the role of women in India. Much of the debate surrounding Fire focused on what constituted Indian tradition and whether or not lesbian sexuality had existed in India before British colonialism imposed Victorian moral standards on Indian culture in the nineteenth century. Indeed, one of the main problems raised by the debates about Fire was the difficulty of separating out the issue of lesbian rights from the broader discourse on tradition and culture, which many right-wing protesters felt were attacked by the film.

Significance

Fire was undeniably the first widely distributed film depicting lesbian sexuality in India, and its significance lies in the debate that it prompted about lesbian sexuality. Before the release of Fire, Indian lesbians were tolerated if their relationships remained hidden. Although Fire did not result in the freedom to be lesbian, or gay, it nonetheless opened the door to discourse about lesbian sexuality and gave Indian lesbians their first positive representations on the big screen. Newspaper reports of the protests following the release of Fire show that the film had a profound impact on lesbians in India, resulting in never-before-seen large-scale organizing and demonstrations.

Fire did not, however, result in additional film representations of lesbian sexuality until 2004, when the Bollywood film Girlfriend, directed by Karan Razdan, was released. Girlfriend tells the story of Tanya, who becomes obsessed with her roommate Sapna after Sapna falls in love with a man; the film underscores the stereotype of the psychotic lesbian stalker.

Once again, members of Shiv Sena vandalized movie theaters showing the film in the name of defending Indian tradition. In this case, however, Girlfriend was also protested by Indian lesbian groups, who objected to lesbian sexuality being coupled in the film with psychosis and stalking. While progress in positive representations of lesbian sexuality has not been obvious in India, it is clear that the debate that was ignited by Fire has had a noticeable political effect, as lesbian rights groups were well prepared to respond to Girlfriend. Fire (film) Film;and lesbian sex[lesbian sex] Hinduism, and lesbian sex Censorship;of film in India[film] Lesbian sexuality;in Indian film[Indian film] India;film censorship

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bachmann, Monica. “After the Fire.” In Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, edited by Ruth Vanita. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ghosh, Shohini. “From the Frying Pan to the Fire: Dismantled Myths and Deviant Behaviour.” In Re-searching Indian Women, edited by Vijaya Ramaswamy. Delhi, India: Manohar, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gopinath, Gayatri. “Local Sites, Global Contexts: The Transnational Trajectories of Deepa Mehta’s Fire.” In Queer Globalizations: Citizenship and the Afterlife of Colonialism, edited by Arnoldo Cruz-Malave and Martin F. Manalansan IV. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parameswaran, Uma. “Contextualizing Diasporic Locations In Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Srinivas Krishna’s Masala.” In In Diaspora: Theories, Histories, Texts, edited by Makarand Paranjape. New Delhi, India: Indialog, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patel, Geeta. “On Fire: Sexuality and Its Incitements.” In Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, edited by Ruth Vanita. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Puri, Jyoti. Woman, Body, Desire in Post-Colonial India: Narratives of Gender and Sexuality. New York: Routledge, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramaswamy, Vijaya. “Deepa Mehta’s Images of Fire: An Interview.” In Re-searching Indian Women, edited by Vijaya Ramaswamy. Delhi, India: Manohar, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vanita, Ruth, and Saleem Kidwai, eds. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

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