since December 29, 1998
Plenty of Smoke Over Fire
By TIM McGIRK New Delhi
indu leader Bal Thackeray likes to think of himself as India's cultural emperor, but many Indians regard him as king of the killjoys. Ever since his militant Shiv Sena party won control over Bombay and the surrounding state of Maharashtra in 1995, Thackeray's mobs of morality enforcers have been hard at work. Along with other Hindu militants, they have censored plays, bullied painters and threatened to bust up concerts by Muslim musicians from Pakistan.
In a raging dispute over a new film, however, the emperor may have pushed too far. On Dec. 2, Shiv Sena women stormed theaters showing Fire, a sensitive portrayal of two sisters-in-law trapped in loveless marriages who find solace in a lesbian relationship. Maharashtra's Chief Minister Manohar Joshi condoned the mob attacks in Bombay. Soon after, thugs smashed up a New Delhi theater where Fire was playing to a packed audience. Panicked distributors halted screenings of the movie in New Delhi, Ahmedabad and Pune--all cities where Shiv Sena or other Hindu militant groups can summon up local toughs -- even though the film, made by Canada-based Indian director Deepa Mehta, had won 14 international awards and shown in 32 countries without a murmur of protest. Instead of posting police around the theaters, the federal government sent Fire back to the censors for review.
While the Shiv Sena portrayed the film as a salacious romp, many Indian film-goers found it poignant. Says director Mehta: "A lot of my film is about loneliness, about women finding their voices." These themes found an echo in many households, and before long those who had rushed to the theaters hoping for pornographic thrills gave way to women viewers, often mothers and daughters, eager to see a candid exploration of the fractures that can divide a traditional extended family.
The relationship between the two middle-class women in the film grows slowly. "I wanted a modern India of cell phones, Hondas and blue jeans, not the begging-bowl syndrome," says Mehta. An exuberant bride enters the family. Sita likes dancing to her Hindi-film tapes, while the older of the two sisters-in-law, Radha, is shackled to a devout husband who aspires to nirvana through celibacy. Sita quickly realizes that her new husband, who runs the video shop downstairs, is otherwise occupied with a mistress. Adrift, the two women turn to each other for emotional sustenance and then physical love, observed through the keyhole by a servant who eventually tells all.
What really bothers Thackeray, Mehta believes, is not the lesbianism as much as the challenge that independent-thinking women pose to patriarchal Indian society. Feminist author Ritu Menon agrees. In the Indian Express, she writes: "The Indian 'tradition' that the [Shiv Sena] and others of their ilk hold dear ... endorses the subjugation of women in real life." Indeed, the Hindu militants' objections seem apocalyptic. In a statement, the Shiv Sena's women's wing declared: "If women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse. Reproduction of human beings will stop." Jokes Mehta: "I never thought my film would help solve India's population problem."
The Indian film industry usually cowers before Thackeray's stormtroopers, but this time they have rallied around Mehta and her two women stars, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Several luminaries filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court to force the government to stand up to the cultural inquisitors. The group is alarmed at attempts by extremist organizations such as the Shiv Sena to impose strict moral values on India's many-faceted society. "It's wrong," says actress Azmi, "that a handful of people are deciding what all of India can or cannot see."
The movie has ignited such passions that the public is even fighting back. Women's groups and artists have demonstrated on behalf of Fire at the cinemas in Bombay and New Delhi that the Shiv Sena had damaged. When an extremist mob raided a screening in Calcutta, the audience fought back, driving away the self-appointed guardians of morality. Even some Shiv Sena activists question whether they went too far. Though determined to continue the campaign, Vandana Shinde, who led the first attack on a Bombay theater, says: "My own college-aged daughter told me I hadn't done the right thing." Concludes Nikhil Wagle, editor of Mahanagar, a Marathi newspaper: "Fire may mark a turning point. People have started openly attacking Shiv Sena for what it did to the film." The fire next time may be the one that consumes India's cultural supremacists.
With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi and Maseeh Rahman/Bombay
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