Deepa Mehta's Fire creates controversy and protests in India

  • Guidelines of the Indian film censor board
  • Fire returns to theaters in Bombay 23 Feb 99.
  • Deepa Mehta defends Fire on Rediff.
  • Fire screened to select audience. Shabana flays 'selective' ban on creative films. Hindu, 29 Dec 98.
  • Freedom under Fire: Smokescreen for hidden agenda. Shabana Azmi writes in the Times of India, 17 Dec 98.
  • Supreme Court directive to Maharashtra govt.. Hindu, 15 Dec 98.
  • Security for Dilip Kumar tightened. Hindu, 15 Oct 98.
  • Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family AFP, 14 Dec 98.
  • The Fire Within -- Pritish Nandy defends those who protested the screening of Fire. Rediff article.
  • Artistes call to end 'cultural emergency'. Hindu, 9 Dec 98. Same story from Times of India.
  • Deepa Mehta appeals to the Supreme Court. AP, 7 Dec 98.
  • Controversy over Fire takes a new turn. The Mumbai Youth Association takes it to the Supreme Court. Hindu, 7 Dec 98.
  • Fire referred back to censor board. Times of India, 5 Dec 98.
  • Shabana Azmi's membership of the Rajya Sabha should be revoked, says the Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi. Rediff.
  • Film director accuses Indian govt. AP, 4 Dec 98.
  • Despite protests, Fire is a hit. Times of India, 4 Dec 98.
  • Film generates heat in Rajya Sabha. Times of India, 4 Dec 98.
  • Shiv Sainiks raid Delhi theater. Hindu, 4 Dec 98.
  • Activists slam attacks on lesbian film, Hindus vow to widen protest. AFP, 3 Dec 98.
  • Activists storm Bombay cinemas. AP, 2 Dec 98.
  • Lesbian film sets India on Fire. BBC Online, 13 Nov 98.

  • Deepa Mehta and other South Asian women film makers on the Sawnet web page.
  • Sawnet reviews of Fire.

    Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family

       NEW DELHI, Dec 14 (AFP) - A radical Hindu leader whose party has  
    vandalised cinema halls showing a lesbian love story has said the 
    attacks would cease if the two women were shown to be Moslem instead 
    of Hindu, a daily said Monday. 
       Bal Thackeray, whose party rules India's film capital Bombay,  
    told the Pioneer newspaper that contrary to the story of the film 
    "Fire," lesbianism did not exist in Hindu families. 
       Thackeray said he was enraged because the two women, unhappily  
    married sisters-in-law who desert their unfeeling spouses, were 
    named Sita and Radha, leading Hindu goddesses worshipped all over 
    the country. 
       "Why does the story revolve around a Hindu family?" he said.  
    "Why has the filmmaker named the main characters Sita and Radha?" 
       He said his party would stop the attacks if the two women were  
    given Moslem names. 
       "Could not the filmmaker have named them Shabana, Saira or  
    Najma?" he said. "Fire may have received 14 international awards but 
    will anyone deliberate on the harm these people are doing by 
    ushering in a wretched culture?" 
       Fire's Canada-based director Deepa Mehta and leading Indian film  
    personalities including actor Dilip Kumar and director Mahesh Bhatt, 
    filed a 17-page petition in the Supreme Court last week seeking 
    protection for the film. 
       The court was urged "to take all steps as are necessary to  
    provide a sense of security, apart from mere protection so that the 
    film can be exhibited." 
       Hindu fundamentalists have attacked theatres showing the film in  
    New Delhi, Bombay and other cities, causing it to be sent back to 
    India's censor board for review. 
       "Fire", however, is currently being shown in movie halls.  
       Activists from Thackeray's party on Sunday stripped down to  
    their underwear during a protest outside the Bombay home of actor 
    Dilip Kumar, who filed the petition against the protests, along with 
    Deepa Mehta. 
       Kumar, a Moslem who has been decorated with Pakistan's highest  
    civilian honour, did not comment on the incident but it drew severe 
    condemnation from Lal Krishna Advani, India's Home Minister and 
    cabinet number two. 
       "Peaceful demonstrations are part of democracy which can be  
    understood," Advani said late Sunday. "However, there is no place 
    for violence or exhibition of human parts in it." 
       Mehta, an acclaimed feminist director, had enraged Hindu  
    fundamnetalists further last week by claiming that gay relationships 
    were prevalent in ancient Indian society. 
       "Lesbian relationships are part of the Indian heritage and the  
    film brings into the public domain the hypocrisy and tyranny of the 
    patriarchal family, the issue of women's sexuality and makes a 
    strong statement about women-women relationships," she had said. 
       The film stars leading Indian actress and parliamentarian  
    Shabana Azmi, who has worked with international stars such as 
    Shirley Maclaine, and Nandita Das, the daughter of one of India's 
    top painters. 
       Thackeray's views were echoed on Sunday by junior information  
    minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi one of the two Moslem ministers in 
    India's Hindu nationalist-led coalition government. 
       Naqvi told reporters in the northern city of Bareilly that  
    "anything cannot be shown in films in the name of freedom of 
    expression" adding the "image of India as a land of squalor and 
    poverty was being sold to Western countries for a high price for 
    many years." 

    Deepa Mehta appeals to the Supreme Court

       NEW DELHI, Dec 7 (AFP) - An acclaimed feminist film director  
    Monday appealed to India's Supreme Court to ensure that screenings 
    of her latest work, a lesbian love story, are no longer disrupted by 
    radical Hindus. 
       Canada-based Deepa Mehta and leading Indian film personalities  
    including actor Dilip Kumar and director Mahesh Bhatt, filed a 
    17-page petition seeking protection for the film "Fire." 
       The court was urged "to take all steps as are necessary to  
    provide a sense of security, apart from mere protection so that the 
    film can be exhibited." 
       Hindu fundamentalists have attacked theatres showing the film in  
    New Delhi, Bombay and other cities. Based on the love of two 
    sisters-in-law, both unhappily married, it stars top actress Shabana 
    Azmi, who is also a parliamentarian. 
       The protests have led the film to be sent back to India's censor  
    board for a review. "Fire", however, is currently being shown in 
    movie halls. 
       About 400 women, including director Mehta and lesbian activists,  
    meanwhile picketed a movie hall in New Delhi's downtown Connaught 
    Place where protests had led the management to stop screening 
       The demonstrators denounced last week's violence and urged the  
    owners to resume shows. 
       A protestor screamed: "Lesbianism is prevalent everywhere. Why  
    pretend it does not happen here." 
       Mehta argued in her court petition that her "fundamental right"  
    as a film maker had been "strangulated by the violence against the 
    movie" and sought an investigation "into the acts of violence 
       The protest against "Fire" was ignited by the Hindu militant  
    Shiv Sena party, which rules India's film capital Bombay. Shiv Sena 
    activists say the theme is "un-Indian" and could "corrupt" Indian 

    Film director accuses Indian Govt

    Film Director Accuses India Gov't
    .c The Associated Press
    BOMBAY, India (AP) -- The director of a film that features a lesbian kiss
    and has sparked protests in India criticized demonstrators on Friday and
    accused local government officials of complicity in the uproar.
    Right-wing activists in Bombay, New Delhi, and other cities have stormed
    into theaters this week to try to stop showings of ``Fire,'' saying its
    sexual content was an affront to Hindu values.
    ``We have condemned the methods used by the miscreants and the overt
    support they received from the state government. These attacks must be
    stopped,'' director Mahesh Bhatt said.
    A group of prominent theater and movie figures, including Bhatt, signed a
    petition Friday and sent it to the Supreme Court chief justice protesting
    the campaign against ``Fire.''
    The Indian Censor Board is known for a heavy hand, but allowed ``Fire'' to
    be shown with no cuts. In addition to the women kissing, the film has a
    brief nude scene.
    The movie had run to packed houses for three weeks in Indian cities,
    causing little more than raised eyebrows and a smattering of protests. But
    the protests by the rightist Shiv Sena party have caused all shows of the
    movie to be suspended in Bombay.
    The film is about two women who have a lesbian relationship because of
    their unhappy marriages to two brothers. Homosexuality and the unhappiness
    of women in traditional families are rarely discussed in India.

    Activists slam attacks on lesbian film, Hindus vow to widen protest

       BOMBAY, Dec 3 (AFP) - Attacks by right-wing Hindus on cinema  
    theaters screening an Indian film portraying a lesbian romance 
    sparked controversy on Thursday with MPs and leading social 
    activists condemning the "gay-bashing." 
       Some 200 Hindu nationalists on Wednesday vandalised two cinema  
    halls in Bombay, the hub of India's film industry and its gay 
    capital, for showing  "Fire" in which top Indian actress Shabana 
    Azmi leaves her celibate husband for her sister-in-law, who is also 
    unhappily married. 
       The controversy rocked parliament in New Delhi Thursday with  
    opposition members slamming the Hindu nationalists for "intolerance" 
    and "hoodlum rule" in Bombay. Azmi, who was present in the house, 
    watched the fiery debate but did not comment or interject. 
       The attacks triggered a strong reaction among social activists  
    in the country. 
       Leading the chorus was India's best-known gay activist Ashok Row  
    Kavi who said the protests were the latest form of "gay bashing in 
    homophobic India." 
       "It is tragic that when Oscar Wilde, who represents the  
    criminalisation of homosexuality, is being reinstated in his country 
    with his statue unveiled in central London, such a thing is 
    happening here," he told AFP from Bombay. 
       Kavi, a former Hindu monk, argued the attackers were ignorant of  
    their own religion. 
       "Our criminal laws on homosexuality were bequeathed to us by the  
    British, who had a Christian view of things, and based it on the 
    King James Bible. Saint Augustine says lust is suspect because it 
    obstructs in the exercise of free will. 
       "Hinduism on the other hand defines sex as one of the three ways  
    of attaining salvation. Hinduism does not run away from sexuality 
    and does not pass judgement on people who have different 
       However, Meena Kulkarni, a member of a Hindu party in power in  
    Maharashtra, of which Bombay is the capital, on Thursday said she 
    would extend the protests to other parts of the sprawling state and 
    the rest of the country. 
       Kulkarni told AFP that Shabana Azmi, who has worked with  
    international stars such as Shirley Maclaine, should be stripped of 
    her membership of the federal parliament. 
       "She should be thrown out. She has insulted Indian women. They  
    have shown two women having a physical relationship. 
       "Even if such things go on on the sly, by showing them on the  
    screen we are actually informing others about such acts of 
    perversion. It will spoil our women." 
       Azmi said she was "shocked that a small group of people can take  
    the law into their hands and disrupt a film that has been duly 
    passed by the censor board and won 14 international awards, 
    including two for best acting by me. 
       "The film is receiving an overwhelming response all over the  
    world," she said, adding that noted feminist Gloria Steinem had 
    called it a "landmark film." 
       Shobha De, a leading Bombay socialite-turned-writer dubbed  
    "India's Jackie Collins," slammed the attacks, saying they did not 
    reflect the public mood in her city. 
       "This is a miniscule section representing a certain view. The  
    whole city does not think like that." 
       De, one of the first people to see the film, however, said the  
    plot -- two women living under one roof and drawn to each other due 
    to their husbands' neglect -- was ridiculous. 
       "Its suggests if a woman is unhappy or lacking in male company,  
    she leaps into the bed of the first available women as a preference. 
    That kind of thing happens in remand homes and prisons but rarely in 
    a normal-life situation." 
       Kavi backed her on that count.  
       "I am against the depiction. It disempowers female bonding.  
    Women in India traditionally hug and show other physical forms of 
    intimacy without anything going on between them. Those relationships 
    may now become suspect." 

    Activists storm Bombay cinemas

    BOMBAY, India (AP) -- Dozens of right-wing activists stormed two theaters in
    Bombay today, prompting a movie distributor to suspend the showing of an
    internationally acclaimed film about a lesbian relationship. 
    The protesters claim the movie ``Fire,'' the first film from India to focus on
    lesbianism, distorts their culture. At least 100 activists with the right-wing
    Shiv Sena Party surrounded the theater managers and demanded the movie not be
    The movie's distributor, Shringar Films, suspended showing of the movie in
    Bombay, citing concern for audience safety. Shiv Sena activists have used
    violence to get their way on other issues. 
    ``We will wait and watch. Ultimately, audience safety is more important,''
    said Balkrishna Shroff, an owner of Shringar Films. 
    ``Fire'' has been packing theaters in the three weeks it has been running in
    Bombay. Angry ticket-holders lined up for a refund. 
    ``Why can't those who cannot stomach sensitive subjects not come for the films
    instead of stopping us from seeing good cinema,'' said Naina Fernandes, a
    college student. 

    Lesbian film sets India on Fire

    BBC Online, Nov. 13, 1998
    By South Asia Correspondent Daniel Lak
    When the film Fire opens in Indian cinemas it will undoubtedly cause
    outrage, enlightenment and confusion.
    Fire has already been shown in many other countries, but the Indian censor
    board wanted to give it a thorough examination.
    Daniel Lak asks if India is ready for FireIt passed, and this powerful
    story of two sisters-in-law who fall in love, is being shown uncut in
    English and India's national language, Hindi.
    When the film was shown last year at two Indian film festivals, there were
    strong reactions, including negative ones from the influential social
    conservatives in India.
    But one group of people in the country is awaiting this film eagerly - the
    Indian lesbian community, which for years has maintained a silent, almost
    secret existence.
    Breaking new ground
    The film's protagonists are sisters-in-law, trapped in emotionally bleak
    marriages, who turn to each other for comfort, love and eventually, sex.
    Deepa Mehta: "It has caused outrage, love and confusion"Despite its vast
    output and long history, Indian cinema has rarely ventured into such a
    Fire is not meant to be about gay life, but after world-wide release, as it
    makes its debut in India, it is sure to be provocative and challenging.
    Director Deepa Mehta aims to be provocative and challenging: "Some people
    are outraged by it, some people love it and some people are confused by it.
    I think it's not going to be any different in India - at least I hope not."
    Many of India's gay women are glad that Fire is showing in their country.
    The couple I spoke to, on condition they remain anonymous, have been
    together for more than six years.
    They make no secret of their relationship, but neither do they openly
    proclaim their sexuality.
    A lesbian character in the film is allowed to burn by her shamed
    husbandIndia, they say, has yet to come to terms with the very existence of
    female homosexuality. Finding a stable partner can be tough when society
    doesn't even acknowledge that women can be attracted to women.
    One said: "We live in the same neighbourhood - so I've known her over the
    years. We belong to the same group of friends. She had been away in Africa
    and I heard about her relationship there. Much later when I went up to her
    we became friends - and one day it just happened - it just took over."
    Acceptance not easy to find
    Now, they live together and have a wide circle of friends, some gay, most
    not. And they are beginning to find the confidence that is necessary to
    assert themselves and their identity. Some changes are tough though.
    "With our families we could not interact with each other as a normal
    couple. That did bother us. It was not a proper kind of acceptance - it was
    more like 'yes, you're doing it - but we don't recognise it - yet we're not
    saying anything bad about it,'" one said.
    The public in India is getting its first challenge from the painted
    billboards and hoardings up in major cities to advertise the film Fire.
    Their vivid depictions of scenes from the movie are in keeping with the
    Indian cinema tradition of promising more in the advertising than is
    delivered in the film - more sex, violence or titillation.
    The fact that Fire passed the tough Indian censorship process without a
    single cut could be seen as recognition that this is a serious film that
    has chosen its scenes and story line carefully.
    Or it could be taken as an indication that society remains ignorant or
    unaware of the sexual options before women.
    Breaking through ignorance
    Telephone counselling is now available in major cities, like Delhi.
    Until a helpline was set up, there was literally nobody for women to talk
    to. Cath Slugget, of the Sangini support group, says those who call are
    often confused and unaware.
    So Indian cinema-goers will be seeing a film that challenges taboos, and
    has some vivid portrayals of passion and violence.
    But Fire also makes it clear that overturning tradition can be dangerous.
    whatever comfort gay women might take from a sympathetic story line Fire is
    not a film that is likely to leave anyone here indifferent.

    Last modified 19 Aug 99