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The film that forced India to see women and sexuality in a bold new way

The three powerhouse women behind “Fire” reflect on the polarizing film two decades later, and the growing levels of censorship in Indian filmmaking

The humble South Asian ‘chaat’ — a concoction of doughballs, chickpeas and tamarind — was thrust into the global limelight when it was served at the New Delhi’s state banquets in honor of U.S. President Obama in 2010 and 2015. Today, at the Women In The World conference in Delhi, the world also learned that an invitation to share some ‘chaat’ in Amritsar was the spark which led to the making of the landmark Indian film, Fire.

In a conversation with the Scottish writer and historian, William Dalrymple, filmmaker Deepa Mehta revealed that the movie’s roots lay in her own life, growing up in Amritsar, surrounded by the the love and remarkable friendship between her mother and her aunts. However it was a particular moment of tension in her home life — the day her whole family, including her mother, watched aghast as Mehta’s eldest uncle delivered a slap to her father during a fierce argument — which sparked the idea for the movie. “When my aunt Leela turned to my mother and brushed it off with a ‘Let them be, let’s have chaat,’ that was the inspiration,” she said.

Mehta, joined by her actor and activist colleagues, Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi, was asked whether the film, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, had managed to stand the test of time. When it was released, Fire polarized Indians, as it celebrated love and family but also questioned traditions — signaling a need for discussion about tolerance and acceptance of a multiplicity of identities, and supporting freedom of speech.

The filmmaker confessed that at the time that she embarked on the film, she had been both naive “and a sucker for punishment” as well as being very lucky to sign up the two starring actors. Shekar Kapur, another Indian cinema powerhouse, had introduced Shabana Azmi to the script and Mehta fortuitously contacted Azmi almost at the same moment. Azmi said she had been slow to come on board with the project, confessing that she had taken time to deliberate about the potential effect of the film on her work with Indian slum women. She had been sure that the film would spark controversy and worried that the conflict inspired by the film would be used against her. She was, after all, working with women who were already challenging patriarchy and might now be even more hesitant in approaching her. “But then my conscience told me, I had to” she said.

Azmi observed that at the time, she was confident that not everyone in India would react in the same way and while some would like the film and others would not, the important point was to spark debate and a questioning of the traditions at the heart of the film. “I was confident that Deepa Mehta would bring sensitivity to the project, a sensitivity which would encourage the audience to have important conversations not only about sexual minorities but religious minorities, the Other and other nations.”

Her colleague, Das, said she was very happy that she had signed on for the project and also described an unplanned encounter with the script. She laughed that despite everything, she was still fielding questions about who she preferred to kiss — Shabana Azmi or Rahul Khanna? (Khanna played her love interest in Mehta’s second project, Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s seminal work, Ice Candy Man, on India-Pakistan partition.)

In Fire, her character, Sita, felt like a natural progression of the work she had been doing as an activist. She remains active in this work with Indian street theatre groups. Sita, she said, was a young person, a rebel, impulsive and full of questions for authority about women’s lack of choices women, exploring love with freedom, fighting patriarchy.

Das told the audience that even in 1998 no one was comfortable using the word lesbian: her character had to portray the awkwardness of the fact that there is no word in the Indian language to express her love. “This was very real”, she said.

In interviews, said Das, journalists were guarded — hedging around the issue with careful language. The film had managed, however, in both tangible and intangible ways, to change the vocabulary regarding homosexuality.

Referring to the Delhi court and its varying interpretations of Section 377, the Act that criminalises sexual activities “against the order of nature,” including homosexual acts and later was found to be unconstitutional, she said: “The seeds must have been Fire.”

“There was no representation, a society with hypocrisy, the film was definitely a landmark and today we are talking about it,” she said.

Asked if she believed India has changed, Mehta said he had been very bewildered by the “thrashing” criticism by [political party] Shiv Sena despite the fact that the censors had approved screening of the film without cuts.

“It ran in theatres for a week. And then Shiv Sena started thrashing it as against sanskriti tradition,” she said. “This led to it being pulled out subsequently [and yet] later the committee that was set up to examine the film praised the Censor Board for passing the film without any cuts.”

Today, she said, the head of the Censorship Board has deemed it necessary to edit a kiss in a James Bond film, protesting its “length,” while firebrand protesters have taken to the streets against any slights to their idea of Indianness. “What is stunning is that our film was passed without a single cut and then pulled. I cannot believe that can happen now. Censorship being worse now is the understatement of the year. There is a growing culture of intolerance.”

Referring to the fatwa announced against A. R. Rahman, the panel agreed that in a pluralistic society, there should be no tolerance of violence. “Our society will be intolerant,” said Azmi “ but how will the state deal with it? That is the state’s business.”

The fear, they added, is that artists will begin to self censor. In the wake of the release of Fire, Azmi admitted she would examine prospective projects for whether they would be seen as controversial once more.

She said she was only too aware that audiences view films through the prism of their own expectations and baggage and that the purest form of the art may be lost. “But if I come across something that needs to be raised, I do take it up,” said Azmi. “All to do one’s bit to have a climate of sensitivity.”

Das added: “In our industry there is a fear of being political, not saying anything. [Cate] Blanchett spoke of Paris and Beirut and on her work being so insignificant. But here everyone is so nervous to say anything. I am forever seen as an activist by actors.”

Mehta said she continues to work on the difficult issues that affect women and their relationships: “These are the choices starting with Fire, to explore women in situations that have not been explored before. Domestic violence, particularly immigrant women for these are women without networks,” she said.

“To explore violence, to explore choices and the impact of religion. I remember what Bapsi Sidhwa once told me ‘All wars are fought on women bodies,’ I get to know much more about my subjects subconsciously.”

Das added that people often think that “courage is something you to have work on. But I think it is inner conviction, coming naturally … But I believe it is in something you do, what is instinctive.”

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