Friday, April 10, 2009

Culture, Sexuality and Politics in Deepa Mehta's Fire

In Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta's 1996 film Fire, the first part of her "Elements" trilogy (followed by Earth (1998) and Water (2005)); Nandita Das's character, Sita, talks about the difficulty of expressing her lesbian relationship in her native tongue, saying "there's no word in our language for what we are, how we feel for each other"[1]. A statement which might seem odd to a western viewer, considering the film occurs in 1996 India, when (one would imagine) vocabulary exists for referring to phenomena even if said phenomena is (supposedly) not socially/morally accepted or widespread in such a (relatively) diverse and developed society. Regardless of the term's actual existence in Hindi, the fact that its use was not common enough (or at least not appropriate enough) for Sita's character to consider as describing her relationship with Radha (Shabana Azmi), says something about the way in which the behaviour itself was seen (or hidden) in the society that the characters inhabit. Director Mehta herself refers to the opinion of a lot of Indians which insist that "lesbians don't exist in [Indian] culture!"[2] She further elaborates that "Indians don't talk about sex" jokingly adding: "A country of a billion people, and they don't talk about sex."[3] Statistics aside, however (or precisely in light of these 'statistics'), the fact that sex is considered taboo even when practiced in its socially acceptable (heterosexual) form, only further goes to show the deep layer of taboo that a same-sex relationship might be shrouded in. The other thing to notice about that sentence is the fact that Mehta refers to Indians as "they", despite being Indian herself. While having emigrated to Canada at 23, Mehta makes films set in India, with Indian actors and generally identifies as an Indian filmmaker (which is not to say that she does not shy from referring to herself as a Canadian or Indian-Canadian filmmaker either). While it is plausible that this choice of words might have had more to do with the medium and audience at which it was directed (the English-speaking audience of the New York Magazine) it can be equally indicative of her feelings towards aforementioned Indian taboo of sex, seeking (perhaps unconsciously) to distance herself from the phenomena. Indeed, considering her work as a whole and Fire in particular, one can see why Mehta would not like to identify with the part of Indian society that claims that "lesbians do not exist". A mere choice of words, however, be it intentional or not, is not enough to understand the filmmaker's view of the subject and this view's overall significance to Indian society in particular and to sexuality in general.

To adequately appreciate this view, one must consider several elements as relating to Mehta's Fire, both in terms of the film's content and in terms of the socio-cultural landscape that it explores and its reception in said landscape. In doing so, I intend to show that Mehta's Fire redefines queer film by adapting it to the Indian cultural context while exploring the issues stemming from the heavily patriarchal nature of her home country.

To do this, I will begin by looking at the reception that the film had in India and the turmoil surrounding its 1998 release. In addition to issues raised by the events, I will consider the element of free speech as articulated by both opposing and supporting sides of the conflict at the time of the film's premiere in India. I will look at some of the arguments used by both supporting and opposing parties, as well as the significance that these arguments have as relating to both the homosexual and cultural aspects of the film. Following this and directly stemming from it, I will consider some cultural issues that the debates raised. These issues do not only provide a helpful background for understanding the environment into which the film was released, but also aid in exploring some of the problems raised by the film with said environment. How does Indian culture (and here I refer to 'Indian culture' in the broadest sense, seeing how it is practically impossible to generalize or essentialize such a diverse environment) reconcile the idea of homosexuality, both in the present and in its history, and how does this feed into the queer context of the film. Finally, I will explore this very queer context, looking at how it's manifest in Mehta's film in particular but also within the larger Indian society and more broadly in a global context.

To start, one can look at the events surrounding the film's release in India. In the section dealing with India, between a paragraph about Australian missionary Graham Stewart being burned to death by Hindu extremists and one about the Pakistani cricket team's less than ideal visit to Bombay, The 1999 edition of the Human Rights Watch World Report notes: "In December 1998, the award-winning film Fire, by director Deepa Mehta, was recalled from theatres after Shiv Sena activists vandalized at least fifteen cinemas where it was playing. Sena members objected to the film's depiction of a lesbian relationship between two Hindu sisters-in-law, adding that had the women been Muslim there would be no objection"[4]. Putting aside for a moment the actual details of the story, the mere fact that the events surrounding the film's release warranted a mention in the Human Rights Watch World Report, especially among such serious stories (which is not to say that Fire's release wasn't serious), only manages to show how grave the situation really was. When the events surrounding a film's release are considered a human rights violation, especially by an international organization like the Human Rights Watch, one must look at the significance that this event might have had on the overall impression of the film. The more interesting part of that note, is that the Shiv Sena say there would have been no objection to the lesbian relationship if the women were Muslim. This says something crucial about the issue at hand (primarily with extremists but to a certain extent also with moderates opposing its release), that is, the issue is not so much the fact that there is a lesbian relationship depicted, but rather that the characters partaking in this act are members of the dominant cultural (and similarly religious and moral) majority. To put this in a more western perspective, one could draw parallels with Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005), drawing controversy not so much because it featured a homosexual relationship, but rather because the homosexuals were cowboys, a fact which destabilized some cultural codes which, up until that point, would not have been the subject that kind of "attack" in the mainstream. India of 1998 was not, however, the American conservative right of 2005, and the repercussions of this sort of intrusion into the cultural fabric of the country were felt long after the film had its debut. When attempting to shoot Water, the last part of the trilogy, in 2000, Mehta was met with threats and demonstrations which ultimately prevented her from going on with the shoot and delaying it for five years, to finally be completed in 2005[5].

What is even more interesting, however, is the conflict among the protesters which were against the film's censorship, a detail that even further goes to show the unique cultural significance the issue of the same sex relationship has in the society. Bachman talks of "the conflict between those who wanted to stress democratic rights and freedom of speech in general and those who wished to bring forward the specific issue of lesbian rights,"[6] noting "the contradiction inherent in some free-speech protestors' requests that lesbians censor themselves"[7]. Here, people that are essentially "fighting on the same side", with ultimately the same goal (unbanning the film) enter in conflict over the very issue for which the film got in trouble to begin with. On one hand this might seem hypocritical, to fight for a freedom but at the same time demand its restriction on others. But instead of decrying the labelling of a group's subset as "last among equals" (the reverse of primus inter pares) which implies that somehow a minority is less entitled to fight for the same right as the rest of the group fighting for this right, one must look at why this might be the case in this particular instance. One reason might be, that the issue is so strongly ingrained in the culture of the society at hand that a double standard as to the entitlement to participate in an activity is accepted because the gravity of a same-sex-relationship in this society (even among moderates) overrides the overall fight for freedom of speech. Finding an equivalent to this situation is more difficult in a Western society, but one would imagine most groups fighting for whatever rights in the west (as liberal as they might be) might be reluctant to receive support from and as consequence be associated with an organization such as NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association - assuming it was still in existence), mainly due to moral codes in effect, which could bring the opposite outcome of the one that this hypothetical group is seeking. In fact, the mere analogy of lesbian rights in India to aforementioned organization is in itself problematic, and can very well serve to destabilize the argument being made, even though it was only used to better illustrate a point than rather to draw direct parallels. Ultimately however, Bachmann notes, Fire's primary value lay precisely in the debate surrounding the film[8], and quoting Rima Banerji: "Fire's most compelling point is the manner in which it has become a truly public text, the subject of controversy in the media and among viewers… The fact that it has elicited such strong reactions from critics and spectator is perhaps its most notable redeeming quality…For those of us who are lesbians, the film is a milestone because it has pushed the politics of same-sex love into the limelight with an unprecedented amount of publicity and hype"[9].

Indeed, this public debate was used to explore issues of cultural identity present in the Indian society. As Geeta Patel notes, "cultural nationalisms were at stake here, and the debate centered around what forms these nationalisms might take and which citizens would have access to controlling them"[10]. The problem of including lesbians as part of the Indian cultural identity (or even acknowledging their existence) became essentially a struggle not only to define what the Indian cultural identity is, but further a struggle to decide who should be allowed to influence this definition. In the case of Mehta's film, this cultural identity was presented as one where unhappy wives turn to each other because the institution of marriage is not as perfect as some would like to pretend, and even if the marriage was perfect (since some took issue with them turning to each other for the sole reason of their respective failed marriages - an issue I'll explore later), society would not allow them to be together for moral reasons. Further, allowing her film to be shown, thus disseminating this view of the Indian cultural identity, would essentially make her one of the "citizens [with] access to control [the form of Indian nationalism]" which was the problematic issue being debated. The subsequent writing of the Supreme Court which "sought to uphold all citizens' democratic rights to free viewing and showing," demanding "an open public sphere, open for discussion, open to multiple representations that could be articulated and watched in safety" was not enough however, as the film was eventually banned quoting emergency government power against a threat of public safety[11]. But despite this, the issue of deciding if lesbians were part of the nationalism remained. The fact that Sita claims "there is no word in our language for what we are" might prove that they are not part of this nationalism. On the other hand however, "the storm of commentary and countercommentary about Fire proves wrong Sita's statement"[12] and "the many conflicting voices tell us that while there may be no adequate single word, there is certainly no shortage of words deployed to explain what we are, to interpret and reinterpret the fiery images on contemporary India's cultural screen."[13]

But what of this cultural screen upon which Fire is projected? Patel refers to the fact that for all intents and purposes, Fire operates within the framework of a Bollywood plot, pointing to the fact that the "trials and tribulations of difficult love" and "love against the grain within a joint family", both elements present in Fire, are part of "a genre with a long history, beginning in the nineteenth century."[14] In this respect, Fire would seem to conform to the very conventions which its detractors feared were being shattered. It is however, this very conformity (or rather apparent conformity), that posed the most difficulty to individuals that opposed the film. Patel further elaborates that while on the surface Fire conforms to the Bollywood formula, in practice it breaks away from it. According to Patel, the Bollywood genre of "love against the grain" was about the "disruptions provoked by desire and the resolution offered for those provocations" against a background of an anticolonial nationalist heteropatriarchy[15].This "triangle", as Patel refers to it, was never broken by the "lodging [of] desire in places of sexed sameness"[16]. Essentially what Mehta does with Fire is work on some cultural expectations with a long tradition in Indian society, "lulling" the viewers with the familiar until they are comfortable and only then shatter this comfort with a lesbian relationship which forced the viewer to receive and "swallow" it before they could decide if they'd like to "digest" it. An unfair move on Mehta's part, if it weren't for the fact that lesbianism wasn’t something that broke away from Indian tradition but merely something that, over the years, with the help of the political right in India, became taboo. Pointing to grandparents' stories, folk songs and the sculptures in Khajuraho and Konark (which depict, among others, lesbian relationships), Bachmann shows that lesbians are not new to Indian culture. In this sense, Fire not so much unfairly introduces foreign elements into Indian culture, but rather resurrects elements which, over time, have become close to extinct, and forces the viewer to acknowledge them because they form an actual part of current Indian society.

The inclusion or exclusion of this element in Indian society however, demanded that sex be considered in terms of political economies, something that is accomplished by "aligning" the different bodies at play (both abstract bodies such as religious or right of choice bodies, and specific ones like the bodies of the women in Fire), thus "transmuting the body of person into forms of the body politic"[17]. But while this way of reading the film enables us to discuss it in terms of politics, we run the risk of abstracting away from the analysis of the same-sex sexuality present in Fire[18]. According to Levitin, "the lesbian outcome was arguably not necessary in a film about the choice to leave a bad marriage"[19] and in fact "Mehta likely would not have been funded by Canada to make Fire as a film about lesbians and, allegorically, about the hold of tradition and a call for choice"[20]. Indeed, this view was shared by some critics (mainly white straight males and some lesbian according to Tom Waugh) who challenged the film as a mere "contextual theory of lesbianism, women driven into each others' beds only by husbandly neglect"[21]. But while this might be a valid argument, the film can work as an open text and the lesbian relationship can function as gateway for discussing a myriad of other issues that women in India (and to some extent elsewhere) are faced with. While a more conservative reading of the film can indeed point to the husband's neglect as the reason for the lesbianism, a liberal one can see the lesbianism as happening despite the heavily heterosexual and male-dominated society which the characters inhabit, a society which would have prevented the relationship from happening. Paraphrasing Carol Upadhya from Economic and Political Weekly, Bachmann notes that "the depiction of Radha and Sita's desire for each other makes more space for all women to challenge oppressive family and social relations" which in turn, according to Upadhya, renders the film "a feminist, not just a lesbian, project"[22].

So on one hand we have the lesbianism as caused by "inadequate" male counterparts or as a rebellion against said male counterparts - but what of the same-sex relationship itself? Is it used merely to contrast an unjust patriarchal society and to illustrate the rebellion against said society, or can it stand on its own as unquestionably discussing gay issues without any other "hidden" motive? According to Bachmann, paraphrasing Shohini Ghosh, the film's depiction of sexuality and its connection to the construction of gender renders the film "pioneering, in that it casts gender as a construction involving factors far more complex, fluid and abstract than biology would have us believe"[23]. While this theory does not refute the previous two, which cast the visible representation of female same-sex desire as a comment on women being kept "in their place" within the heterosexual home, it does so by "unsettling the definitions of gender", the very definitions that place the woman at home[24]. In linking lesbianism and feminism through the concept of gender construction,[25] we avoid the favoring of either element on the expense of the other, and similarly avoid reducing lesbianism to a simple cause-and-effect equation or as symbolic for other issues separate from lesbianism itself. As such, Fire is both a feminist and a lesbian film, and neither element overshadows the other, in fact they converge into one cohesive discourse regarding women's' issues in India, issues that are equally concerned with feminist, lesbian and a myriad of other aspects of women's' lives. By using the various elements (feminism, same-sex relationship, male oppression, heterosexual society, gender construction) to support each other, instead of using most to support a single one, Fire uniquely portrays the multifaceted reality that its characters are part of.

In conclusion, we have seen how Deepa Mehta's Fire manages to bring the queer film to Indian cultural context and what are some of the issues that it explores in doing so. Looking at the circumstances surrounding its release in India and the this release's impact in Indian society, both culturally and politically, we observed the significance that it had in generating public discourse and strong reactions which reflect the country's moral and political state. Further, I considered the issue of the Indian cultural heritage which the film used as canvas. I have looked at some of the reactions and misconceptions that various groups had regarding the nature of culture and the right to shape this culture. Also discussed was the way in which Fire uses this canvas to paint its own picture of Indian culture and how it displays this picture to the Indian audience. Finally, considering the same-sex relationship in the film I have seen how it operates in terms of a lesbian project and how this fact was viewed after the film's release. The way in which the lesbian aspect of Fire was either explained as a an effect of other issues or as a tool for the advancement of other agendas, separate than gay rights, was considered and ultimately linked to feminism through the concept of gender construction. Ultimately, there are many other issues left unexplored, namely the uniquely transborder qualities of the filmmaker and her own identity as Indian, Canadian and Indian-Canadian. There is no doubt however that, as Tom Waugh notes, the "larger context of a transnational artistic milieu where courage is rare and a turbulent planetary traffic in sexual identities increasingly calls into question cultural and national borders confirms Fire's status as a historic moment in Canadian - and Indian - queer film history"[26]. As such, it is perhaps fitting that the film was made by a director with a "hyphenated" national identity, a quality which enables Mehta to view both the weaknesses of her two cultures as an outside observer as well as their strengths as an integral part of said cultures. And while the fact that she is not gay herself risks rendering her as less apt at expressing issues affecting gay people (in both India and Canada), it was perhaps an important first step which shows that these issues do not preoccupy gay people alone, but are rather of broader significance to people everywhere.. . . .

[1] Mehta, 1996, [1'33'14"]

[2] Falvo, 1997, 157

[3] Ibid. 157

[4] Human Rights Watch, 1999, 189

[5] Knegt, 2005, 36

[6] Bachmann, 2002, 241

[7] Ibid. 241

[8] Ibid, 239

[9] Banerji, 1999,18,19

[10] Patel, 2002, 230

[11] Ibid, 230.

[12] Bachmann, 2002, 241

[13] Ibid., 242

[14] Patel, 2002, 230

[15] Ibid., 230.

[16] Ibid., 230.

[17] Ibid., 231.

[18] Ibid., 231.

[19] Levitin, 2002, 286

[20] Ibid., 284.

[21] Waugh, 2006, 468

[22] Bachmann, 2002, 237

[23] Ibid., 241

[24] Ibid., 241

[25] Ibid., 241

[26] Waugh, 2006, 468


Bachmann, Monica. "After the Fire." In Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society, edited by Ruth Vanita, 234-244. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Banerji, Rima. "Still on Fire." Manushi, no. 113 (July-August 1999): 18,19.

Falvo, Patricia. "Talent in the line of Fire." New York Magazine, August 1997: 157.

Human Rights Watch Staff. Human Rights Watch World Report 2000: Events of December 1998-November 1999. New York, Washington, London, Brussels: Human Rights Watch, 1999.

Knegt, Peter. "Beautifully Elemental. Review of Water. Directed by Deepa Mehta." Exclaim! Magazine, November 2005: 36.

Levitin, Jacqueline. "Deepa Mehta as Transnational Filmmaker, or You Can't Go Home Again." In North of everything: English-Canadian cinema since 1980, by William Beard and Jerry White, 270-293. Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2002.

Fire. Directed by Deepa Mehta. Trial by Fire Films Inc., 1996.

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, 222-233. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Waugh, Thomas. "Deepa Mehta." In The Romance of Transgression in Canada: Queering Sexualities, Natins, Cinemas, 468-469. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2006.

1 comment:

Nidhi said...

Please cite Ibid's work!!!!!!!!!!!!
Nicely written though !!!