Fire (1996 film)

Fire (1996 film)

Infobox Film
name = Fire

image_size =
caption = Movie poster
director = Deepa Mehta
producer = Bobby Bedi
Deepa Mehta
writer = Deepa Mehta
narrator =
starring = Nandita Das
Shabana Azmi
music = A R Rahman
cinematography = Giles Nuttgens
editing = Barry Farrell
distributor = Zeitgeist Films
released = 6 September 1996 (Toronto Film Festival)
runtime = 108 min. UK
104 min. US
country = India
language = Hindi
budget =
preceded_by =
followed_by = "Earth" (1998)
"Water" (2005)
website =
amg_id = 1:154421
imdb_id = 0116308

"Fire" (Hindi: फायर) is a 1996 film directed and written by Deepa Mehta, starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. It is the first of Mehta's "Elements" trilogy. It is followed by "Earth" (1998) and "Water" (2005). The movie is loosely based on Ismat Chugtai's 1941 story "Lihaf" (The Quilt) [cite book| last = Gopinath| first = Gayatri| title = Impossible Desires| format = Book| date = 2005| publisher = Duke University press| location = Durham and London| ] , and is the first Indian film to explicitly show homosexual relations. After its 1998 release in India, right-wing Hindu groups staged several violent protests, setting off a flurry of public dialogue around issues such as homosexuality and freedom of speech.


The film is set in contemporary Delhi, India, in the household of a joint family which runs a fast-food and video business in the ground floor of their two-storey home. The protagonists are the two daughters-in-law, both of whom have joined the family by arranged marriage: Sita (Nandita Das), who is newly wed to the younger son Jatin (Javed Jaffrey); and Radha (Shabana Azmi), who has been married to the elder son Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) for 15 years. Both couples are unhappy. Jatin, who feels he has been pressured into marriage by the family, neglects Sita and continues to see his Chinese girlfriend. Ashok has chosen to become a tapasvin (an ascetic) after discovering that Radha is infertile, and has been using her to test his resolve in celibacy for 13 years. The two women turn to each other for solace and become lovers. Tipped off by a servant, Ashok discovers them in bed together. Sita leaves, while Radha, who wishes to explain matters to Ashok, promises to meet her at the Nizamuddin Dargah to start a new life together. In the confrontation that follows, Radha's sari catches fire from the kitchen stove and Ashok abandons her in flames. In the final scene, the two women are reunited.

Events surrounding screenings of "Fire" in India

"Fire" was passed uncut by India's censor board (the Central Board of Film Certification) in May of 1998 with a rating of 'Adult', the only condition being that the character Sita's name be changed to Nita . The film was first screened on 13 Nov 1998 and ran to full houses in most metropolitan cities throughout India for almost 3 weeks.

On December 2, more than 200 Shiv Sanaiks stormed a Cinemax theatre in suburban Goregaon in Mumbai, smashing glass panes, burning posters and shouting slogans. They compelled managers to refund tickets to moviegoers. On Dec 3, a Regal theatre in Delhi was similarly stormed. Bajrang Dal workers with lathis invaded Rajpalace and Rajmahal in Surat, breaking up everything in sight and driving away frightened audiences. Theatres in Surat and Pune stopped screening the film on the same day. When attackers attempted to shut down a screening in Calcutta, however, ushers and audience fought back and the movie stayed open. Twenty-nine people were arrested in Mumbai in connection with these incidents. Citation
last = Jain
first = Madhu
last2 = Raval
first2 = Sheela
title = Ire over Fire
newspaper = India Today
date = 1998-12-21
url =
] Citation
last = Bearak
first = Barry
author-link = Barry Bearak
title = A Lesbian Idyll, and the Movie Theaters Surrender
newspaper = New York Times
date = 1998-12-24
url =
] Chief Minister Manohar Joshi supported the acts of vandalism, saying, "I congratulate them for what they have done. The film's theme is alien to our culture."

On December 4, the film was referred back to the Censor Board for a re-examination. The Indian government was criticized for siding with the vandalizers. [Citation
last =
first =
author-link =
last2 =
first2 =
author2-link =
title = 'Fire' referred back to censor board
newspaper = The Times of India
date = 1998-12-05
url =

On December 5, a group of film personalities and human rights activists, including Deepa Mehta, Indian movie star Dilip Kumar, and director Mahesh Bhatt, submitted a 17-page petition to the Supreme Court asking that a "sense of security" be provided, in addition to basic protection, so that the film could be screened smoothly [ Unknown Author. "Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family" "Agence France Presse", December 14, 1998. Accessed March 14, 2008. ] . The petition referenced articles 14, 19, 21, 25 of the Indian Constitution, which promise the right to equality, life and liberty, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of conscience, free expression of religious practice and belief, and the right to hold peaceful meetings. cite book| last = Vanita| first = Ruth| title = Queering India| format = Book| date = 2002| publisher = Routledge| location = New York | isbn = 0415929504 ]

On December 7, Deepa Mehta led a candlelit protest in New Delhi with activists from 32 organizations against the withdrawal of "Fire", carrying placards, shouting anti-Shiv Sena slogans and crying for the freedom of right to expression. [ Unknown Author. "Candle-light protest against withdrawal of controversial film", "BBC Summary of World Broadcasts", December 9, 1998. Accessed March 14, 2008. ]

On December 12, about 60 Shiv Sena men stripped down to their underwear and squatted in front of Dilip Kumar's house to protest his support of "Fire". 22 were arrested and Kumar, as well as others involved in the production of the film were provided with police security. [ Unknown Author. [ "Sainiks spew venom against Dilip Kumar for backing "Fire","] "Indian Express", December 13, 1998. Accessed March 16, 2008. ]

Cinemax reopened screenings of "Fire" on December 18, but a hundred members of the BJP vandalized posters at the Sundar Theatre in Kanpur despite the police commissioner's reassurance that protection has been arranged.

"Fire was" re-released without cuts by the Censor Board on February 12, 1999. [ "Indian censors clear "Fire" for a second time", "Reuters", February 14, 1999. Accessed March 10, 2008. ] Theatre screenings were resumed on February 26 and continued without incident. [ The Naz Foundation Trust, " [!OpenDocument&Highlight=0,fire History's Flirtation with Fire] ", August 1, 1999. Accessed March 7, 2008. ]

Commentary and Countercommentary

In the initial weeks following the release of "Fire", reviewers praised the film's explicit depiction of a homosexual relationship as "gutsy" [ "That Burning Feeling", "Times of India", November 20, 1998. Accessed March 16, 2008.] , "explosive", [ Mullick, Swapan. "Explosive Power of the Woman", "The Statesman", November 26, 1998. Accessed March 14, 2008. ] "pathbreaking". [ Somaaya, Bhawana. "Year of Unusuals", "The Hindu", November 27, 2008. Accessed March 13, 2008.]

Following the Shiv Sena attacks on the film, prominent party members said "Fire" had been targeted because it was an "immoral and pornographic" film "against Indian tradition and culture." The lesbian relationship depicted in the film was criticized as "not a part of Indian history or culture." [ Kidwai, Saleem. "Sena fury on Fire," "The Independent", February 5 1999. Accessed March 12, 2008.] [ Trehan, Madhu. [ "When we don't get what we want, we have to get violent"] , "The Hindustan Times", December 13, 1998. Accessed March 14, 2008.] Other politicians of the Hindu right voiced fears that the film would "spoil [Indian] women" and younger generations by teaching "unhappy wives not to depend on their husbands" and informing the public about "acts of perversion." "Activists slam attacks on lesbian film, Hindus vow to widen protest," "Agence France-Presse", December 3, 1998. Accessed March 13, 2008.] Speaking on the dangers of "Fire", Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackery compared lesbianism to "a sort of a social AIDS" which might "spread like an epidemic." [ Ghosh, Shohini and Madhavi Shahani Kapur. [!OpenDocument "From the frying pan to the Fire, Fear of Fire] , "Communalism Combat", January 1 1999. Accessed March 11, 2008. ] Furthermore, Thackery claimed that the film was an attack on Hinduism because the protagonists were named Sita and Radha, both significant goddesses in Hindu belief, and that he would withdraw his objections to the film if the names were changed to Muslim names. [ "Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family", "Agence France-Presse", December 14, 1998. Accessed March 12, 2008. ]

A statement issued from the Shiv Sena's women's wing said, "If women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse, reproduction of human beings will stop." [ McGirk, Tim. [ "Plenty of Smoke Over Fire"] "Time Asia" December 21, 1998. Accessed March 13, 2008. ]

Critics charged the Shiv Sena of committing "cultural terrorism" "Indian activists force cinema to call off 'Fire'", "Reuters News", 18 December 1998. Accessed 11 March 2008.] and of using the rhetoric of "Indian tradition" to protest images of female independence and suppress freedom of speech. [ Menon, Ritu. [ "The fire within"] , "The Indian Express", December 9, 1998. Accessed 13 March, 2008.] "The justification for [Shiv Sena's] action... demonstrates that Indian 'culture' for the Sangh parivar is defined essentially in terms of male control over female sexuality." [ Upadhya, Carol. "Set This House on Fire", "Economic and Political Weekly", December 12, 1998, 3176-77.]

Gay activist Ashok Row Kavi criticized the Shiv Sena's protests as "gay-bashing" and disputed their claims that lesbianism was "against Indian tradition", indicating that homosexuality is in fact abundantly present in Hinduism and that the criminalization of homosexuality was a legacy of British colonialism, heavily informed by Christianity. Pointing to evidence of lesbianism in Indian tradition, he said, "What's wrong in two women having sex? If they think it doesn't happen in the Indian society they should see the sculptures of Khajuraho or Konark." [ [ "Sena attacks theatres to douse Fire"] , "The Indian Express", December 3, 1998. Accessed March 10, 2008. ]

Madhu Kishwar, then-editor of "Manushi", wrote a highly critical review of "Fire", finding fault with the depiction of the characters in the film as a "mean spirited caricature of middle class family life among urban Hindus". She claimed that homosexuality was socially accepted in India as long as it remained a private affair, adding that Mehta "did a disservice to the cause of women... by crudely pushing the Radha-Sita relationship into the lesbian mould," as women would now be unable to form intimate relationships with other women without being branded as lesbians. [ Kishwar, Madhu. [!OpenDocument&Highlight=0,fire,kishwar "Naive Outpourings of a Self-Hating Indian: Deepa Mehta’s Fire"] , "Manushi", January 1, 1998. Accessed March 15, 2008.] Kishwar in turn received criticism for claiming that homophobia did not exist in India, and for failing to acknowledge the rights of homosexuals to publicly assert their identities in India.

Deepa Mehta expressed frustration in interviews that the film was consistently described as a lesbian film. She said, "lesbianism is just another aspect of the film..."Fire" is not a film about lesbians," but rather about "the choices we make in life." [ Verma, Suparn. [ "An interview with Deepa Mehta"] "", October 24, 1997. Accessed March 10, 2008. ] [ Deshpande, Manisha. [ "In the line of fire"] "The Indian Express", December 13, 1998. Accessed March 12, 2008. ]


* Karishma Jhalani as Young Radha
* Ramanjit Kaur as Young Radha's mother
* Dilip Mehta as Young Radha's father
* Javed Jaffrey as Jatin
* Nandita Das as Sita
* Vinay Pathak as Guide at Taj Mahal
* Kushal Rekhi as Biji
* Shabana Azmi as Radha
* Ranjit Chowdhry as Mundu
* Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Ashok
* Alice Poon as Julie
* Ram Gopal Bajaj as Swamiji
* Ravinder Happy as Oily man in video shop
* Devyani Saltzman as Girl in video shop
* Sunil Chabra as Milkman on bicycle
* Avijit Dutt as Julie's father
* Shasea Bahadur as Julie's brother
* Meher Chand as Goddess Sita
* Bahadur Chand as God Ram
* Puran as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
* Sohan Lal as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
* Meher as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
* Amarjit Chand as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
* Karam Chand as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
* Kabir Chowdhury as Boy in video shop
* Laurence Côte as French tourist at the Taj Mahal


External links

* [ Queering Bollywood] (an internet resource with queer readings on Indian cinema)
* [!OpenDocument&Highlight=0,fire History's Flirtation with Fire: Documenting the Controversy] (an extensively detailed timeline of the events outlined above)
*imdb title|id=0116308|title=Fire
* [ Interview with Deepa Mehta]
* [ Roger Ebert's Review]

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