At the conclusion of Deepa Mehta’s groundbreaking 1996 film Fire, the protagonists of the movie undergo a literal trial by fire as they escape an oppressive, patriarchal household and begin their lives together as women in love with each other. The fire is symbolic of the rocky road that Indian lesbians are forced to travel in a traditional culture that frowns upon homosexuality and continues to employ arranged marriages as a matter of course for its daughters.
For lesbians of Indian descent, whether living in India or in the diasporic South Asian community, finding positive representations of themselves on-screen was once a rare event — before Fire, there were no widely available images of female same-sex love in modern Indian culture. But since that watershed film, other films have emerged that provide a broader picture of what lesbianism means within Indian culture.
For Indian lesbians, the experience of coming out is situated within a dialogue about tradition and modernity, homeland and adopted land, and films from Fire to last year’s Scottish lesbian film, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, grapple with these cultural issues as well as the coming-out tropes that are present in the majority of lesbian films.
Though Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s film Fire first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1996, it was not released in India until November 1998, when India’s Censor Board of Film Certification finally released the film uncut. The film, which is set in New Delhi, tells the story of two sisters in law, Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), who are trapped in loveless marriages.
As the two women become friends, their relationship develops into a sexual one. Fire, which was the first widely distributed film to depict same-sex love between women in India, was also groundbreaking because the women experience a happy ending.
But director Mehta has always insisted that Sita and Radha’s relationship is not necessarily a lesbian one, but rather a relationship that emerges out of a particular situation. Mehta recently confirmed to AfterEllen.com: “I’ve always said Fire is a film about emotional nurturing and the vacuum that is created in loveless, arranged marriages in India. Which, in the case of Fire, is filled by the love between two sister-in-laws.”
So although Fire undeniably does address love between women, the motivation for their love arises from their unsatisfying heterosexual relationships, and is essentially an indictment of traditional Indian marriage rather than an affirmation of lesbianism.
Director Ligy Pullappally, whose film The Journey (2004) told another story of love between women in India, acknowledged, “Even Fire has — a fabulous film, beautifully done, I’m so happy that it came out in 1996 — but it had that one drawback which was that the lesbianism was a fallback position, because the heterosexual relationship didn’t work out.”
Despite the ultimately problematic motivation for lesbianism in Fire, the film is significant not only because of its pioneering status, but because of the controversy it ignited. Two weeks after it opened, 200 men and women from the conservative Shiv Shena political party stormed the New Empire and Cinemax theaters in Bombay where Fire was playing, claiming that the film was “against Indian tradition.”
This set off a string of reactions that led to counter-protests organized by the Campaign for Lesbian Rights, a coalition of several Indian lesbian organizations.
On Feb. 12, 1999, the Censor Board once again released an uncut version of Fire, and by Feb. 25, both Hindi and English versions of the film reopened in India without additional violence.
Thus, Fire was the catalyst for the organization of lesbian groups in India that had previously operated largely underground. When the next major Indian film to depict lesbianism, Girlfriend, was released in 2004, these groups were already well-organized and were able to protest the film’s extremely stereotypical representation of lesbians.