"It is unlikely that Fire will go down in cinematic history as a great film…" is the exact statement scholar Sohini Ghosh wrote about Deepa Mehta's film Fire post its release in India in 1999. About a decade later, she wrote an entire book titled Fire: A Queer Film Classic, which begins with a retrospection about how wrong she was about the film. "Fire was not easy to dismiss," she writes in the introduction of her book.
Every other conversation about Fire, especially those in the years following its release, refers to it as a 'controversial' film. But today, it is more so a CLASSIC queer film.
The fact that the film was passed by CBFC twenty-five years ago without any cuts (that too twice!) and released as a mainstream commercial film is an amusing fact in itself. The year 1998 was indeed a different time. Asha Parekh was the CBFC board chairperson, BJP with its alliances was the ruling party with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister, and Shiv Sena was the ruling party in Maharashtra. Freedom of expression laws are the same, but the number of queer mainstream films remains scarce.
Fire originally premiered in 1996 to the international audience at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and was released two years later in India in 1998. After three weeks of running in theatres, the right-wing parties, especially the women's wings of those parties, showed outrage against the film. The outrage, too, took many forms. The usual violent mob-led protests of smashing theatres and burning posters ascribed the term 'controversial' to Mehta's film. Personal attacks on the directors and actors of the film were repeatedly made. Deepa Mehta's diaspora identity was held up to convey that she had no conception of Indian values or culture. Questions about the possibility of the film with Muslim women's characters in an attempt to communalize the whole incident etc., were the age-old strategy adopted even for this film. However, one incident among many baseless and purely politically motivated protests particularly stands out.
About a hundred men from the Shiv Sena party protested, wearing only their underwear, in front of actor Dilip Kumar's house because of his support for the film. Kind of ironic for a homophobic protest to use such a homoerotic tactic!
The first 'lesbian' film?
Deepa Mehta has repeatedly iterated that she does not view Fire as a lesbian film. In a recent interview with Film Companion on the occasion of 25 years of the film, she elaborates
"I did not think I was making a film about lesbians. In fact… I thought I was making a film about patriarchy and how it defines women's sexuality, the loneliness, where women find themselves, and if it was not for the loneliness, they would not have discovered their sexuality… It was very important that I was talking about the barrenness of emotional relationships and what do women do when they find themselves in that. Maybe they find their own sexuality."
Intellectual discussions from all spectrums of politics have time and again discussed the dichotomy of the sexual identity of a lesbian as a Western concept, alien to contemporary Indian reality. The anxieties about essentializing people who prefer the intimacy and company of their same-sex into an identity category in English terminology still exist within today's queer politics. Many of these conversations have begun since the release of this film. They are well-encapsulated in the dialogue uttered by Nandita Das's character Sita/Neeta, where she says that there is no term in our language to express what they feel. It is ironic that they say so in English. Not long after the release of the films, the works of Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai could have suggested coded terms like Sakhi, Soi, etc., which did express the relationship of queer women's love, although these terms generally signify a form of homosocial friendship.
In a way, not the film, but those opposing the film labeled its sexuality to deem it western. Indeed, it was the violence against the film which led to the formation of queer collectives and queer civil society bodies like the Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI). So, in a way, the film is quite significant in the history of queer politics in India because it brought questions specifically about female homosexuality into mainstream discourse, which was otherwise absent among even conversation of IPC section 377 and conversation around HIV/AIDS.
However, it was not just the right-wingers who criticized the film. It is today a queer classic, as the film has been invoked (both positively and critically) by many academicians and critics. The content of the film, as well as the events surrounding its release, the backlash, and its repercussions, make the film a distinct event in the history of queer rights in India.
The film was criticized by the queer community as well. There is a common criticism that the characters in the film are not given any backstory or context. It appears that they found their queer desire because they could not find love and intimacy in their respective heterosexual marriages. In a review written by Suhail Abbasi in Bombay Dost (1999, vol.6), he questions
"Would they be drawn towards each other if they had more fulfilling relationships with other men or their husbands?
Would Radha leave her husband if she had a child?
Do same-sex relationships nurture only when there is a crisis and no other alternative?'"
Feminist scholar Ratna Kapur in her article 'Too Hot to Handle: The cultural politics of Fire' (2015) addresses the question of the women's interest with other men in the film. She counters why the character of Radha, or Sita/Nita never show interest in the sexually frustrated Mudu, the servant! She writes:
'Neither Radha nor Sita choose Mundu as a sexual partner, a refusal that may in part be mediated by class as much as by gender and the lack of desire for Mundu. Instead, they choose one another. Their relationship is not the consequence of default.'
As far as the second question asked by Abbasi's review, it could tangent into a separate film altogether. Would Jatin be forced into a marriage if Radha had a son!
Would Radha leave her husband if he was not such a weirdo?
Is Radha's husband Ashok in love with his Swami Ji (Yes, a queer reading of a queer film is also possible!)
Was Radha ever interested in Jatin?
What if Radha also cherished the path of celibacy and spiritual enlightenment along with Ashok happily?
..... There can be billions of possibilities for the plot, and it is only Mehta who could ponder and resolve our doubts.
It is true that time and again, some queer films have used this trope of finding a reason for someone being queer. But Fire was the first of its kind in Indian cinema. Furthermore, doesn't our contemporary understanding of the fluidity of sexuality complicate this critique as well! The essentialization of sexual identities has created a homogenized image of what it means to be lesbian or queer. What if Fire is a film about same-sex relationships that bloom only in the middle of a crisis. Is that a less valid expression of sexuality? Lisa M. Diamond, in her research on sexual fluidity, mentions women who identify as predominantly heterosexual in their lives but find themselves falling deeply in love with one particular woman while continuing to identify as straight. She also suggests there might be other variations and possibilities of the same. Thus, the women in the film could be bisexual or bi-curious. The film could even be understood in the context of situational homosexuality, where one individual is not attracted to anyone of same-sex, but only to one individual of the same sex, and that is influenced by the situation they are in. Can any queer representation between consenting adults be ever wrong? Fictional imaginations of queerness can be anything but fictitious. Desires are complex, fluid, and 'queer.'
No coming-out story and no super-sad ending!
Globally, the past decade has indeed been the golden age of queer films. Maybe not so much in mainstream Bollywood, but internationally, even beyond English language films, quality queer storytelling has risen exponentially. A common trope in these is a coming-out journey mostly made into a formulaic drama film.
Though Fire does situate itself in an extremely homophobic context, it also is complex and innovative in its storytelling, dealing with loads of other issues, with sexuality being just one among them. The script of the film almost seems ahead of its time in addressing a contemporary concept such as coming out when there is no language to address it. When Radha tells Sita/Nita that she is glad that her husband saw them together because now she does not have to say anything. And even if she could say anything, she would not have been able to articulate it in her language!
There is a recognition that most of the contemporary queer films, most of which are not mainstream but arthouse/indie films, always have a sad ending, where the lovers are separated at the end or just die. With the global rise of a consumer base who seek queer content, mainstream representations of a sort of 'happy and normalized queer stories' are being appreciated. Fire, in its own way, being the first explicitly queer Indian film, thankfully, does not end on a bleak note. The ambiguous ending indeed makes the film to be a hopeful one! In the aforementioned interview, Shabana Azmi revealed that originally the film had the character of Radha die in the end. However, that script was soon changed. She also shares the anecdote that it was a teenage Farhan Akhtar who informed her that, according to him, the death of her character Radha would nullify the purpose of the film itself.
In a way, Fire was ahead of its time. "Fire hasn't dated at all. I think maybe because the wardrobe was very traditional. You can't go wrong with stuff like that because it was a middle-lower class household. It wasn't trying to be cool or anything….It felt of today, and its philosophy was one of inquiry," mentioned Mehta in a recent interview, which might just explain the cinematically technical ways it remains relevant. But in the truest sense, it is the politics of the film, i.e., a scathing anti-religious and anti-patriarchal sentiment, that resonates with continuing contemporary believers of feminism and queer rights.
Another important aspect for the film to remain relevant is its overt intention towards showing a non-western, somewhat docile, and traditional queerness and keeping its characters unlabeled. It was not a queer coded tale of friendship, but it told a sensitive and erotic affair and wisely chose to remain unlabeled. In today's world, it is commonsensical to attribute a specific label to any human being who engages in sexual behavior and/or emotional relationship with a member of the same sex. Maybe Fire, as a product of art from mere twenty-five years ago, invokes us to question that, and maybe that is where its radical queer potential lies!