Published: Sept. 1, 2000 By

[1]   Contemporary discussions of globalization and the transnational circulation of cultural products are often marked by celebratory exhortations of the imminent global village or by less optimistic perspectives that present the Third World as beleaguered and besieged. Countering these perspectives, through an examination of media commentary on the Canadian-Indian film Fire this essay underscores the difficulties involved in transporting meaning across cultural borders. Even as cross-border flows have facilitated the movement of media products, I argue that understandings of cultural artifacts are embedded in specific places and locations. Examining Indian press coverage of Fire I contend that the director’s (authorial) intention to draw attention to the oppressive conditions of Indian women’s lives was subverted by nationalist modes of thinking developed during colonialism, which informed the most visible reaction to the film.

[2]   The essay foregrounds the specific ways in which discourses of sexuality are conjugated within local sites of reception. For instance, the New York Times‘ film critic dismissed Fire‘s narrative for espousing an anachronistic seventies style feminism, while in India the movie was viewed as a Trojan horse for radical Western feminism (Van Gelder, C16). These thumbnail sketches summarize the argument I forward in this essay: the ways in which we understand cultural products are deeply rooted in the historical conditions that mark the locus of spectatorship and are not free-floating. Meanings are anchored to the site of reading and I argue that global products are read still in the vernacular. Media responses to the film elucidate the specific ways in which cultures of viewing are shaped by historical, economic, and political processes that reiterate age-old ways of seeing which go against the grain of globalization. This essay highlights the need to examine the attenuated links between the moments of production and consumption in the transnational flow of cultural products. Rather than facilitate the feeling of a transcendent global village such cross-border traffic instead reifies nation-specific modes of viewing, even as they hint at the possibility of loosening the hyphen linking the nation-state.

[3]   Several scholars have presented the global-local relationship as a sharply oppositional one. For instance, editing a special edition ofboundary 2 on globalization Arif Dirlik and Rob Wilson declare that “the global deforms and molests the local” (8). In this evocative sentence, the editors present the global as a stooge for a malevolent transnational capitalism while the local or Third World is the site of agency and resistance, the last bastion against global capital. Eschewing such a polarized vision I illustrate through an examination of the responses to Firethat both the terms global and local are conjunctural; their meanings are specific to the site of enunciation and cannot be conceived as universal categories. Following Arjun Appadurai’s caution this paper rejects a static model of homogenization or resistance and instead uses an interaction-based analysis, one that recognizes the traffic in ideas of peoplehood and selfhood. Dirlik and Wilson’s formulation of the local as the site of agency and resistance begs also the question, for whom? As this essay illustrates local resistance to the global is manifested in a series of practices that invoke religion to regulate women; control over female bodies becomes a crucial strategy for rejecting the global. Issues pertaining to female identity, sexuality and social location are repeatedly reworked in the context of global flows. The female body, as my analysis reveals, becomes a central site where discourses of power and regulation come to bear.

[4]   Viewing the film’s reception through newspaper reports and commentaries in this essay I explore the historically conditioned contexts within which discourses of nation are produced, circulated, and consumed. While I reveal the generic conventions within which Fire‘s narrative operates, specifically that of Bollywood cinema, the paper focuses on the social relations and global flows that shape its viewing. (Mainstream Hindi movies are referred to derogatorily as Bollywood products, the Indian version of Hollywood.) I point out the specific ways in which the “local” frames understandings of both the global and the local. I scrutinize coverage in Indian national newspapers such as the Hindu, the Hindustan Times, and the Deccan Herald, and newsmagazines such as India Todayand Outlook. These materials are accessible on the internet and I obtained my primary data from the websites each of these organizations maintains. While this issue was covered extensively in the various regional language presses, I have focused on English-language materials since these were most easily available in the U.S.

A Fiery Reception

[5]   In December 1998, a small group of protesters halted the screening of the movie Fire in two Bombay theatres. The following day a similar group attacked a theatre in New Delhi. In both cities, the protesters were primarily women affiliated with the Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist organization with roots in the city of Bombay. (In referring to Indian cities, throughout this paper I have used older, more familiar names rather than the revised names, such as Mumbai, which may be unfamiliar to U.S. readers.) They wore saffron-colored scarves to mark their religious affiliation, bought tickets to the screening and once inside the hall burnt posters, destroyed furniture and effectively banned a film that had gained an audience primarily among women. The protesters condemned the movie’s portrayal of lesbian sexuality claiming it was alien to Indian culture and an affront to its values. Further, they asserted the movie’s storyline would “spoil women” and lead to the collapse of marriage as an institution. (The idiomatic phrase spoil women refers to the corruption of the female psyche through processes of westernization and modernization which would make her ineligible for the mantle of Indian femininity.) The protests spread to other parts of the country where theatre owners withdrew the film rather than face the wrath of the religious right. The only exception to this trend was in the city of Calcutta where viewers shouted out the protesters and forced them to leave cinema halls. These violent responses were countered by civil rights groups, women’s groups and other organizations that rallied in support of the screening of the film. The ensuing debate foregrounded the film’s representation of women and sexual desire, the role of cinema in the articulation of a national culture, and the limits of dissonance and debate within a liberal democratic framework.

[6]   Popular opposition to cinematic representations is not novel nor is it limited to India, but this particular debate reveals the multiple and contradictory ways in which gender, sexuality and religion intersect to produce discourses of national identity. Made by Indian-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta the film’s reception in India and other countries with sizable populations of Indian origin reveals as well the imbrication of gender in local resistances to the effects of globalization. (In Singapore and Kenya, residents of Indian-origin were successful in banning Fire.) The film and its representations of women became repositories for the anxieties accompanying economic and social transformations enabled by the global flows of labor and capital.

[7]   Newspapers and newsmagazines devoted a lot of space to the controversy surrounding Fire. While the majority of the news articles and journalistic accounts focused on the protests conducted against the film, the opinion pieces and editorial columns tended to espouse support for it. The multivalent reception of Firein India is most usefully seen as an arena wherein a number of discourses around femininity, sexuality and modern nationalism intersect and feed on each other. The various articles and commentaries presented radically polarized understandings of the function of cinema and of Fire‘s representations of middle-class Indian women. These responses can be understood only in the context of the difficult shifts and uneasy negotiations that mark the construction of modern India; the different valences accorded to gender, sexuality and religion in competing definitions of Indianness. Above all, they expose the centrality of the female figure in imaginings of the Indian nation. Sorting through these divergent responses helps us understand the ideological investments that have accumulated around the articulation of the female subject and the location of sexuality in discourses of Indian identity, and, in general, discussions of nationalism. An analysis of the para-texts surrounding Firereveals as well the irritated position diasporic cinema occupies in definitions of national identity or national culture.

[8]   The controversy over Fire occurred at a historical moment when Indian woman was being reconstituted as a diacritic of Hindu nationalism, a specific religious nationalism. When the Hindu fundamentalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), took over the national government its members attempted to resituate women within the structures of the patriarchal family. At the same time, politicians sought to institute an affirmative action program that would ensure women comprised at least a third of elected officials at all levels of representation. On first glance these appear to be contradictory gestures, but, in fact, they permit the Hindu parties to present a “modern” face and simultaneously lay claim to being the guardian of tradition. As in the nationalist movement of the early twentieth century protesting British colonial rule, in the political arena enabled by the rise of religious fundamentalism woman has emerged once again as a contested symbol central to the articulation of Indian identity (see Chatterjee; Vaid and Sangari). The policing and containment of female sexuality have become central elements in these imaginations of nation and national identity. Through an examination of the various debates that exploded around the screening of FireI explore the manner in which homosexuality and women’s assertion of sexual desire come to signify the endangered purity of the Indian nation. Although I have singled out this instance for analysis, within India, the social construction of gender and compulsory heterosexuality occur quietly at quotidian sites where politics and religion intersect.

[9]   Akhil Gupta has theorized that newspaper reports are a discursive form through which daily life is narrativized and collectivities imagined. I examine English-language newspapers and news magazines as constituting a “zone of public debate” in which journalists, politicians, women activists and community leaders formulated specific discourses about homosexuality, gender, community and nation. The print media challenged and reinforced emergent cultural and political perceptions of a global threat to Indian social structures. The perspectives presented reveal crucial questions about national identity, who belongs, who does not belong, and what characteristics are considered indigenous and which ones alien. In what follows I first describe the film and some of the play it makes with notions of femininity and tradition. Through an examination of newspaper and print media reports I then describe the rhetorical tropes and representational strategies adopted by those who protested against and those who supported the screening of the film. I unravel the politics engendered by their arguments, their conceptions of the Indian state, and their incorporation of a specific brand of woman within the body politic. I juxtapose these commentaries against the silences that invariably accompany the objectification of women that has become an essential trope of mainstream Indian cinema. Finally, I point out the spaces made available by the debates presented in the public sphere of print media and the discourses that were marginalized.

Rewriting Tradition

[10]   Fire is the first part of a trilogy Mehta has conceived to offer a gendered view of the social transformations effected in India during the twentieth century. The second movie in this trilogy is Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, and was released in 1999. It deals with the partition of the subcontinent following British withdrawal in 1947. Water, the third movie, travels further back in time to the 1920s and has not been completed at the time of this writing. The Hindu right has opposed the shooting of the film in India.

[11]   Fire is about middle class arranged marriages and the persistence of joint family establishments in cramped urban apartments. Set in contemporary New Delhi, its protagonist Radha, played by Shabana Azmi, is married to Ashok. When the story begins the childless couple has been married for over fifteen years. Radha runs the family take-out business, she is the primary caregiver of her stroke-ridden mother-in-law and stoically bears the stigma of her infertility. She epitomizes the “traditional” Indian woman, duty bound and subsuming her individuality to the needs of the family. Ashok has shifted his attention from his family to his spiritual guru, attends to him and practices celibacy. In a move reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy, Ashok insists that Radha share his bed so he can test his capacity for sexual restraint.

[12]   Into this unhappy family enters Sita, the new bride of Ashok’s younger brother, Jatin. It becomes very clear early in the film that although Jatin has agreed to the arranged marriage with Sita he is still in love with his Chinese girlfriend. Jatin abandons his bride for his girlfriend and leaves Sita to negotiate her position within the joint family set-up. Sita is the antithesis of Radha; in an interview Mehta describes her as “modern India, desiring independence over tradition” (Sidhwa, 77). Gradually, the two women, who have been abandoned by their husbands for different reasons, forge a deep emotional bond, which evolves into a sexual relationship. Ashok stumbles upon the two women in bed after he learns of their relationship from a disgruntled servant. The movie ends with the two women opting to leave their married home, but not before Radha chooses to explain her choice to Ashok. While the husband and wife conduct a heated discussion in the kitchen a fire erupts and Ashok decides to rescue his invalid mother rather than help Radha, who is caught in the flames. She saves herself and leaves the home to join her lover, Sita.

[13]   A winner of fourteen international awards, Fire was first screened in India in 1997 at two international film festivals. It was hailed by diverse responses; while some were enraged by its portrayal of lesbian sexuality others praised its presentation of a woman-centered narrative. Before its theatrical release in November 1998, Fire was approved by the Central Board of Film Certification, commonly addressed as the censor board. (No film can publicly be screened in India unless it carries a certificate issue by the censor board.) It received an “A” (adults only) certificate; the Board did not require any cuts but recommended that one of the female protagonist’s name be changed from Sita to Nita. The original version of the film is in English but in India this was supplemented with a dubbed Hindi version. With the name change suggested by the censor board both versions were screened in major metropolitan cities for three weeks before protesters halted its screening. Theatre owners averred that the film ran to full houses and was patronized primarily by young urban women before they were forced to withdraw it. Press reports suggest that women’s groups in Bombay organized special women-only screenings to facilitate its viewership among females, since the average cinema viewer in India is male.

[14]   At first glance, Fire is a flawed but compelling movie that draws attention to the oppressive conditions of married women’s lives in arranged marriages. It reveals poignantly the woman’s perspective of being caught between desire and an oppressive tradition. It delineates the everyday struggles Indian women face when they try to work within the structures of the joint family. Mehta’s film also captures the anxieties that accompany the changes occurring in the bourgeois Indian family as middle class women are interpellated within the flow of a global market economy. Foregrounding the gendered processes of modernity, the movie presents middle-class mundane life as both stifling and marked with possibilities.

[15]   Fire can best be described as a melodrama, one that turns a horrified gaze on the Indian family. It draws upon popular religious epics to highlight the specific ways in which “tradition” structures everyday life. Specifically, the film draws upon the epic narrative Ramayana. Although there exist a number of different versions of this narrative, Mehta references the one that has been popularized in Bollywood cinema and the eponymous television series. The epic is about the life of King Rama and the various trials he undergoes before he is able to rule over his kingdom. Central to the narrative is the abduction of his wife, Sita, by the King of Lanka, Ravana, and Rama’s successful but harrowing rescue mission. The narrative emphasizes that although Ravana kidnaps Sita he does not molest her. When the triumphant couple, Rama and Sita, return to their kingdom some of the subjects challenge their queen’s purity–and consequent worthiness to remain queen–until she has undergone an ordeal by fire. Rama accedes to his subjects’ wishes and Sita participates in the agnipariksha from which she emerges unscathed, proving her chastity. The citizenry however remain skeptical and Rama banishes Sita from his kingdom. In Bollywood, Sita is held up as the ideal of Indian femininity and the so-called chastity test has been variously deployed by cinema makers, often uncritically.

[16]   It is this trial by fire, agnipariksha, that Mehta refers to in Fire. Religion and religious epics function as heuristic devices through which the concept of tradition is mobilized. At three different moments, twice theatrically and once performatively, the film draws attention to the chastity test Indian women are expected to meet. Indian women are depicted as wholly determined by the weight of an oppressive tradition; their activities are regulated and policed constantly. Despite the heavy handed criticism of tradition and the chastity test, Fire points out that a bad marriage need no longer be a tragic event for women, the female protagonists reject the rules of a ritual bound society to seek autonomy. It also foregrounds questions of female desire outside patriarchal scaffolding. Through its explicit portrayal of lesbian sexuality the storyline reveals the underbelly of Indian society and the possibilities available for agency and the expression of female sexual desire. I use the word lesbian cautiously to indicate female same sex desire. Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia Wieringa acknowledge the misrecognition and (western) ethnocentrism that the use of the term occasions. “Making lesbian a global category is problematic because it imposes the Eurocentric term ‘lesbian’, a term usually used to refer to a fixed sexual identity, on practices are relationships that may have very different meanings and expectations in other cultures” (19). Nevertheless, they suggest its use to signify women’s same sex eroticism as distinctly different from men’s and because it inherently demands a recognition of women’s differences. I use the term lesbian in this essay in the same spirit.

[17]   The narrative structure of the film elaborates on the thematics of love as a relation of mutuality which is in conflict with the compulsions of the institution of arranged marriage. Overall, Fire offers simplistically sexual expression as the vehicle of female liberation. Feminist scholars have long been divided over the deployment of sexuality as a mode of female agency (e.g., Vance; Valverde). While some believe that female sexuality can indeed emancipate women providing them the same freedoms accorded to men in patriarchal society, others argue that this could in fact further curtail women’s bodies. In Fire Mehta presents lesbian desire as a simple choice exercised by two women rather than as a gesture that has important consequences on individual lives and social structures. Indeed, rather than contest existing social structures, the two lovers seek refuge in a Muslim shrine. Fleeing from Hindu patriarchy the two turn to another religious institution rather than seek out a secular space. It is questionable whether any religious organization would offer these two women sanctuary, but Mehta opts to present a rosy, happy-ever-after ending that papers over the social conditions that render lesbians invisible in India. Her narrative suggests that lesbian desire can offer women avenues outside oppressive patriarchal structures.

Cartography of Desire

[18]   The film replicates narrative strategies that are commonplace in mainstream Indian cinema and reworks them; its unique features are its explicit portrayal of lesbian desire and the identity of one of its protagonists, Shabana Azmi, who plays Radha. I will first address the narrative featuresFire shares with Bollywood cinema and those that set it apart.

[19]   Sudhir Kakar points out that in mainstream Indian movies, “family relationships, their ramifications and consequences are central to the plot” (91). Similarly, the narrative in Fire centers on the (in)stability of the family. Through a focus on issues pertaining to the domestic arena and kinship relations the narrative unravels the crisis within the middle class family and offers a tenuous resolution. In Hindi cinema, the figure of the woman is often cast as posing a threat to the unity of the middle class family, as exemplified inMother India. In Fire the character of Sita is presented as introducing alien values which lead to an unresolvable crisis of the family. It must be noted that the husbands’ behaviors are not cast as disruptive and destabilizing of the family order, instead they are seen as normal. According to Chidananda Das Gupta, Bollywood cinema upholds the status quo, “pray to God, love your parents, live for your husband . . . and everything will be perfect” (40). These themes are addressed in Fire only to be cast aside decisively by its female protagonists. Rather than uphold the institution of heterosexual marriage the film configures it as a central site of women’s oppression. According to a writer in the English daily the Hindu, “the loud message that comes through in the film is the loneliness of women within the institution of marriage, the inequality of patriarchy that gives men the right to seek their salvation in another woman or in God and the impotence of men when women decide to take hold of their lives and look for love, compassion and companionship elsewhere” (Kapur, 26).

[20]   The conflict of values between tradition and modernity is another well-visited theme in mainstream cinema. “The binary modernity/tradition, whether it is employed to indicate conflict or complementarity, amounts to an explanation, ‘a conceptual or belief system’ which regulates thinking about the modern Indian social formation. This binary also figures centrally, both thematically and as an on-going device, in popular film narratives . . . the explanatory scheme in question functions as a disavowal of modernity” (Prasad, 7-8). Fire thematizes this issue as well as revealing the tug of war between family affiliations and the individual’s desire for freedom and independence. However, offering a female point of view of arranged marriages, it rejects traditional values to embrace the modern concept of foregrounding the desire of the individual over the well being of the community.

[21]   Fire‘s focus on female protagonists and the presentation of a social problem resonate with characteristics thematized in alternative Indian cinema. The women may destabilize the family and the traditional order but they are not presented as villains. Instead, they are depicted as heroic for affirming sexual and social relations based on individual happiness. As I have already pointed out, in mainstream cinema, the woman has a very clearly delineated role to perform within a marriage. If for any reason she deviates from it, she is seen as betraying her biological role and she is expected to pay the price in humiliation and defeat. Suicide or a conveniently accidental death has always been the solution for uncomfortable situations involving women. Fire rejects this plotline and offers a tentative “happy ending.” Further, women in mainstream cinema are seldom depicted as understanding or supporting of each other. While male camaraderie has been celebrated, women are often depicted as “each others’ worst persecutors” (Vasudev, 103). In Fire not only do the female protagonists fall in love with each other their relationship from the beginning is depicted as supportive. With these themes Mehta joins several Indian women filmmakers, such as Aparna Sen, who have redrawn the field of the visible by addressing the subject of the female sexual desire, soliciting the female spectator, and initiating a dialogue that points toward the articulation of a postcolonial sexual identity for Indian women.

Scrambling the Old Order

[22]   Fire may develop themes that have already been explored elsewhere, nevertheless it presents a narrative that transgresses on many levels. It foregrounds the economy of female libidinal desire and the limited space for its expression within the patriarchal structure of arranged marriages. This is constituted through a series of narrative devices which I discuss below.

[23]   Mehta has deliberately selected the names of her protagonists as Radha and Sita. In mainstream cinema these names are invoked to connote wifely chastity and subordination; they refer to a spectrum of archetypes of ideal femininity in Indian culture. Both names encode numerous cultural values inscribed in ancient texts and scriptures. They represent all that is ostensibly pure, chaste, and self-sacrificing about Indian wives. In particular, Sita is used to represent the “perfect woman, the perfect wife, acquiescing unquestioningly to her husband’s rejection of her” (Vasudev, 98). The film uses these signifiers to “transgress nearly every sexual, cultural, and familial norm that constitutes India as it is imagined” (Kapur, 26). Nevertheless, the presence of these names reveals the weight of tradition that continues to shape everyday women’s lives. Further, in the movie’s adaptation of the trial by fire, it is the figure of Radha rather than Sita who has to undergo the ordeal, signaling that everywoman in India is expected to conform to this ideal. This scene underscores the oppressive nature of arranged marriages. By allowing the women to emerge unscathed form the fire and consider options outside of marriage the film overturns the celebration of female chastity.

[24]   As I have mentioned already, in a contrived conclusion, Fire ends with the two lovers seeking refuge in a Muslim shrine. Its disavowal of the traditional order is decisive but not unique. Previously Azmi has undertaken roles where she abandons her husband and unhappy marriage only to return to her father’s home. What makes this movie unusual is its presentation of female sexual desire. In depicting the topography and vicissitudes of desire the movie offers female same sex relations as a viable alternative. This is the central target of the various protests directed at Fire.

[25]   Ironically, Mehta has repeatedly refused to characterize her film as one about lesbian sexuality, instead she claims it is about female characters “needing to be alive.” She has asserted before and after the protests that her film is about desire and control, the choices people make, and the oppressive nature of religion and cultural traditions in India. She specifies that the “lesbian angle” functions only as a “symbol of an extreme situation” (Sidhwa, 77).

I really thought this work was about choices. It also tries to define the place of women in patriarchal society, which is caught between a seemingly modern and economically thriving existence on the one hand, and traditional, outdated values on the other hand. There is a real conflict here. The people who zip around in fancy cars and have access to all that is current find that this lifestyle contradicts age-old customs, which has fewer takers even within their society, let alone the larger one . . . Most specifically, I wanted to explore the place of women in Indian society. It is undoubtedly male dominated, where a woman is a mother, a daughter, a sister, or a wife, but never a woman (for herself). (qtd. in Bhaskaran, 10).

[26]   Some women’s organizations in India as well as feminists and gay/lesbian activists have contested Mehta’s disavowal of the queer subject. Not only have they objected to the film’s facile depiction of lesbian sexuality as “an option forced by conjugal neglect,” they point out that Mehta herself coopts the queer subject for narrative purposes marginalizing the significance of such visibility and representation. They point out that Fire‘s presentation of lesbian identity is not politicized but presented as a lifestyle choice. In an interview with the ManchesterGuardian, the movie’s protagonist, Azmi, has described the film as significant precisely because of its exploration of lesbian sexuality. She explains that her initial reluctance to undertake the role was spurred by the repercussions it could have on her cinematic career within India. These issues are marginalized in Mehta’s repeated assertions that the film is not about lesbianism. I discuss the consequences of this silencing gesture later.

[27]   In addition to its exploration of female sexual desire Azmi’s presence in the film was a contributory factor to the virulent attacks. Azmi is currently one of twelve members nominated to the upper-house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha. She was selected for her contributions to Indian cinema, the arts and her activism on behalf of Bombay’s slum dwellers. She has acted in over 110 films, including nine international projects. During her 25-year career Azmi has emerged as an actor who is representative of the changing image of the heroine on the Indian screen. She has acted in both commercial and alternative cinema and is associated with portraying a woman’s point of view. Outside films, she has worked in regional theatre companies and participated in hunger strikes to facilitate better living conditions for Bombay’s slum dwellers. The BBC refers to her as the Vanessa Redgrave of India, an intelligent, articulate actor-activist. Her image on-screen and off-screen has increasingly become that of a person who transgresses female gender norms and has yet gained social and political power. Above all, she is a Muslim and this feature came in for particular criticism during the protests. Opposers of the film sought her ouster from Parliament claiming that she had besmirched the dignity of Indian women. Specifically, they attributed her Muslim identity to her participation in this “insult to Indian women.” In these attacks, Indian identity was conflated with Hindu identity eliding the multiplicity of religions that comprise the population. Further, Muslims were specifically cast as un-Indian and as marking the limit point of Indian female identity.

The Whole World is Watching

[28]   It is important to note that the movie did not ignite spontaneous opposition when it was screened in India. That the first protests were aired only three weeks after its release is significant. It indicates that the opposition to the movie was orchestrated to mobilize a political constituency. In both Bombay and New Delhi protesters informed news media of their intentions and waited until the arrival of television camera crew before vandalizing the theatres, several media columnists have pointed out. Although the protesters may have sought media attention they did not define their arguments against the movie very coherently.

[29]   Initially the protesters focused on Fire‘s depiction of female sexual desire and women’s exercise of choice. They asserted that these portrayals would “spoil women” by introducing them to ideas alien to Indian culture. For instance, Meena Kulkarni, the leader of the protesters in Bombay, claimed that the “majority of women in our society do not even know about lesbianism. Why expose them to it?” Similarly, a BJP leader stated, “Any rational being will concede that homosexuality is unnatural . . . all this is part of the current trend for ‘modernisation,’ ‘globalisation,’ and ’emancipation’.” This presentation of homosexuality as a western phenomenon is not isolated to India. The ex-presidents of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have asserted that their countries are characterized by “Asian” values, in which the patriarchal (heterosexual) family and state have priority over individual rights (Blackwood and Wieringa, 27). In the Firedebate protesters collapsed arguments supporting the institution of the heterosexual family with the continued well being of the nation state. In a hyperbolic statement Kulkarni asserted that “If women’s physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse, reproduction of human beings will collapse.” And, by extension, so would India. These declarations reveal the central role assigned to women in conceptions of the Indian state; they are reduced to their biological function of reproducers of the nation. (The religious right has been persistent in its opposition to “lesbianism.” For instance, condemning the 1985 Nairobi women’s conference the BJP women’s wing asserted that the “demand for legal sanction of lesbianism is too vulgar and irrelevant in the Indian context” (Kapur and Cossman, 110).) Underlying these statements is the religious right’s anxiety that the majority Hindu population will be over-ridden by the minority non-Hindu populations. It is significant that women are mobilized to shore up the patriarchal family and to reassert male control over female sexuality. The religious right’s arguments suggest that women’s subjugation to male authority is an “Indian” trait that should not be abandoned. Homosexuality, particularly lesbianism, was presented as foreign and unpatriotic. WhereasFirepositions arranged marriage as an inimical site for women and offers the arena outside the middle-class home as a safe space, protesters reclaimed the family and the home as safe spaces and through their actions cast the public arena as dangerous for women. Paradoxically, the women of the religious right took to the streets to assert the sanctity and validity of the patriarchal family.

[30]   In the days after the protests, people who opposed the film developed a broader base for their objections, primarily by raising the issue of western imperialism. They argued that the protesters were responding to a public outcry against moral degeneration and the “growing influence of western culture.” Everything that is considered objectionable in society was labeled western and antithetical to indigenous culture. Mehta’s status as a Canadian resident and the film’s disavowal of traditional norms were used to mark the product as western. Implicitly, “Indian culture” was evoked as a sign of resistance to the hegemonic ambitions of the West, which under the guise of globalism is invading and polluting the Indian middle-class mind. These statements collapse the differences that comprise India into a unitary “Indian” culture that must be defended from the incursions of the West. As Ashis Nandy points out, in these discourses the West is an ideological construct and does not refer to a geographical or temporal entity; it signifies a psychological, economic and cultural category. This opposition to the West has been codified in mainstream Indian cinema very crudely. According to Rosie Thomas, a chaste and pristine India is constructed routinely by opposing it to a decadent, licentious and immoral West, with the film’s villains sporting invariably a cluster of signifiers of ‘westernization’: whiskey bottles, bikini-clad escorts, or foreign limousines.

[31]   The protesters opposed Fire because it does not offer the West as Other, but presents Indian tradition as the object of its horrified gaze. The movie’s condemnation of tradition allowed the protesters to cast Mehta andFire as representative of the West. The anti-Western arguments promulgated by the protesters underscore the anxieties that have coalesced around the economic and cultural transformations that have occurred as India has engaged more actively in global trade. Women, particularly middle-class women, are no longer isolated to the domestic arena, they are participating actively in the public arena of paid labor and have felt the effects of Structural Adjustment Programs. Nevertheless, the protests against Fire are not primarily about women “but about what constitutes authentic cultural tradition” (Mani, 118). Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger in The Invention of Tradition demonstrate brilliantly that traditions which appear ancient are of quite recent origin. They are invented through a “set of practices, of a ritual or symbolic nature which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition which automatically implies continuity with a suitable historic past” (10). The Hindu right’s invocation of tradition in their protests refers to a seemingly stable constellation of ideas and images that refer to a golden age of Hinduism. The unquestioned acceptance of these rituals and symbols as tradition indicates the resonance these ideas have gained with the middle class. In the decade since the rise of the BJP, the Hindu right has consolidated this concept of tradition and successfully mobilized a constituency around it. Significantly, woman was the flashpoint around which the specter of an endangered nation is raised and consolidated. The Hindu nationalism advocated by the religious right as an antidote to globalization configured an imagined community that is restricted to a section of the populace; adherence to its “Hindu” gender codes becomes a necessary criterion for citizenship.

[32]   The objections to Fire‘s “vulgar and obscene” portrayal of women and the incursion of western values are reminiscent of themes developed during the nationalist struggle against British colonial rule. During the nineteenth century, the British focused on patriarchal practices that oppressed Indian women. In Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s felicitous phrase, white men justified imperialism as an attempt to rescue brown women from brown men. In response, Indian nationalists suggested a series of legal reforms even as they pointed out that the practices singled out by the British for opprobrium, such as child marriage and widow immolation, were extreme aspects of Brahmanical patriarchy (the realm of Indian élites). Indian nationalists argued that Hinduism was not oppressive to women, rather by turning to a golden past they could counter that it indeed provided empowering spaces for women. In the debates over Firewe see once again woman presented as the signifier of a pure, authentic India and the repository of cultural values; she is the site of past freedom and future nationhood. She has to be shored against threats from evil forces, of internal and external origins. This perceived threat explains the anxieties expressed by the protesters; if Indian women were contaminated by non-Hindu ideas they would become reluctant to fulfill their traditional duties of wife and mother. In the rhetoric of the religious right pleasure, desire, and rights are aligned together as the other of motherhood and tradition.

[33]   The tropes deployed by the religious right and the narrative function of woman in these discourses seem to share similarities with colonial arguments, but in other respects they are radically different. During colonialism the binary opposition between tradition and modernity functioned to justify western intervention. In colonial discourses modernity was a trope signifying the West, progress, civilization and democracy. Tradition was the other, an exoticized culture bearing the burden of repressive practices. In the opposition to Fire I have enumerated the religious right reverse the terms of these familiar discourses to justify local resistance to globalization. Now, tradition is invoked to signify civilization and morality while the West is associated with an oppressive culture. These discourses highlight the politics of enunciation (Grewal and Kaplan, 5-11). Global flows are characterized here as a one-way process, with India being inundated by a behemoth, ill defined West. The “isolationist” policy encapsulated in the protests reflects the religious right’s fears that India’s national and cultural borders are porous. The religious right casts the Hindu population as being under siege from within and without (Basu, 104-24).

[34]   Based on the objections raised by the protesters the national government resubmitted the film to the Central Board of Film Certification for reappraisal. At this time the arguments made against Fire shifted dramatically. Where once protesters objected to its presentation of alien values, the grounds for objection shifted to the terrain of religion. Now the religious right asserted that the film could be screened if the female protagonists’ names were altered to reflect a Muslim identity (Shabana and Saira). The debate about homosexuality and its location within India were marginalized to focus on religion; protesters now pointed out that the film was an affront to “Hindu” values. The film’s use of the names Radha and Sita had offended the religious sentiments of Indians. These arguments which emphasized religious affiliation articulated a national identity where only Hindus were recognized. They made clear the religious codes embedded in imaginings of the Indian nation: who is Indian, who can represent India and the role of religion in the secular national project. As Zakia Pathak and Saswati Sengupta point out, “Hinduism is not a religion with a founder or ecclesiastical organization with sects . . . Rather it exists as a mosaic of cults, sects and deities, the juxtaposition of which is often for sociopolitical needs” (567). In the arguments forwarded by the religious right Hindu identity was linked inextricably to very specific conceptions of national identity. The protesters produced a totalizing discourse wherein a “native” subject is recast as alien. In their definitions, the borders of the imagined community of India expands to include all Hindus, scattered in the diaspora, and yet shrinks to keep out Indians who are not Hindu, especially Muslims and lesbians. The religious right is the savior protecting India from a myriad threats, not the villain. The nationalism they promote rests not so much on the glories of Hinduism but on a hatred of Muslims and other religious minorities (Ram, 1567-69).

[35]   Subsequently, the Central Board of Film Certification reapproved the film and it was re-released in major cities without much ado on 20 December 1998. Although the censor board had demanded no changes, in Bombay, where the protests originated and the Shiv Sena dominate, the names of both female protagonists were deleted.

In the Shadow of Terror

[36]   Objections to the protests against Fire were immediate, vigorous and numerous. Civil rights organizations, cultural bodies and women’s groups united to offer a range of arguments for the continued screening of the film. While the protesters against the film had presented their arguments primarily from the streets, the supporters aired their voices in institutionalized sites of democratic processes. (An exception to this trend was the candlelight vigil organized in New Delhi by feminist organizations.) Some launched a legal action against the informal ban, others wrote columns in newspapers and newsmagazines, and still others held speak-out rallies on college campuses. Their arguments can be classified broadly as three-fold: demanding freedom of expression as an integral component of a democratic civil society, reimplacing the secular impulses of Indian nationalism, and the assertion of homosexuality as an Indian phenomenon. While those who protested the film presented the West and forces of westernization as problematic features, those who supported its screening resorted to a language of universal rights, one that has been developed primarily in the geographic West and is associated with it. Fire‘s supporters distanced themselves from the religious right rhetoric that conflated Indianness with Hinduism, the language of their support though was replete with references to fascism and specified different uses of religion to assert a secular national identity.

[37]   The majority of supporters framed their arguments broadly within the demand of freedom of expression. They asserted that since the censor board had approved the film it should be screened without hindrance. The religious right, they accused, was deploying a paternalistic attitude in determining what Indians could view; the street protests had denied Indians the right to choose. They cast the protesters deprecatingly as the thought police; the self-appointed gendarmes of cultural values, or saviors of Hindu dharma. They accused the religious right of conducting a cultural imperialism. The violent protests againstFire were depicted as another attempt by the religious right to assert their brand of cultural hegemony over India, a “terror raj”. Borrowing plotlines from the movies, a writer in theHindu characterized the protesters as “characters in a C-grade formula film, in which local toughs, backed by strong political interests, terrorise people into submission” (“Sena”, 11).

[38]   These arguments assert the need for an open civil society in democratic states. “After all freedom of expression is the heartbeat of a democratic society,” one writer proclaimed (Thapar). Similarly, politicians eager to gain electoral mileage from the issue claimed that “no civilised society would gag freedom of expression.” They demanded a “space for a rational debate on contentious points of view.” In these discussions parallels were drawn between Hitler’s Germany and an India governed by the religious right. Supporters contested the religious right’s attempt to position the majority Hindu population as a beleaguered group. Instead they deployed the instance to mark the outer limits of religion’s presence in democracy; they insisted religious affiliations could be permitted only as long as they were presented as secular and could permit the maintenance of a multicultural society. Interestingly amidst this rhetoric of the marketplace of ideas none of the writers challenged the paternalistic role of the censor board or its relevance. Their demands were primarily for a modulated freedom of expression, once the Central Board of Film Certification had approved a film Indians should be free to watch it.

[39]   The majority of these arguments were made in the pages of national newspapers. The only exception to this was the poster campaign mobilized in Bombay by a motley group of citizens. Conducted covertly with anonymous posters pasted late at night to avoid the might of the local Shiv Sena these discourses moved beyond Fire to address issues pertaining to individual rights and freedom. Repeatedly these supporters made links with broader notions of universal rights and the protests against Fire were just one among several instances of the religious right’s violation of basic civil rights.

[40]   Feminists were the most vocal in pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious right’s actions. They pointed out that the objectification of women in mainstream Indian cinema was routinely overlooked but the depiction of women making choices was deemed unacceptable. “If the dignity of Indian womanhood had really concerned the Sena’s roughnecks who protested against Fire, their attention would have been drawn first to the macho, gender-biased drivel that is often churned out by Bollywood and other Indian commercial cinema centres” (Sharma, 27). An editorial in the Times of India argued similarly that the religious right was not perturbed by the everyday oppression of Indian women, indeed they sanctioned it but they contested Fire which pointed out “real” problems. Indian men not “alien values” were the implacable predators of women, it asserted (“Preying”, 11). In these arguments discourses of nation and belonging are returned to the symbolic realm to articulate a broad definition of identity politics.

[41]   From these media discourses it is difficult to ascertain whether feminists and those who supported the screening of the film were effective in altering the terms in which the film was received and understood. In the interests of objectivity, journalists and editorial writers “balanced” feminist re-readings of the film with the objections made by the religious right. Consequently, the broader critique feminists launched against Bollywood’s misogynistic representations slides out of view.

[42]   Finally, a large section of those who supported the film pointed out that the religious right was factually erroneous in presenting homosexuality as a western phenomenon. (Ironically, Bombay, where the protests started, is considered the gay capital of India.) They referred to the Kama Sutra, the sculptures and friezes at Khajuraho and Konarak to validate their claim that same sex relations had existed in the South Asian subcontinent. These writers tapped into history to present a golden age of sexual tolerance in India, they attempted to recover a past in which they could secure and fix homosexual identity as indigenous to India and Hinduism. The nationalism they promote sets up the religious right as other, a disruptive presence threatening the stability of the nation.

[43]   The selective deployment of the sexual history of Hinduism is not limited to this controversy. In general, South Asia gays and lesbians, especially those living in the diasporic communities of North America and the U.K., have enlisted history — personal, archaeological and social — in their struggle for representation and visibility. In her elegant film Khush, Pratibha Parmar documents the presence of South Asian gays and lesbians in the diaspora. She reveals the psychic exile gays and lesbians experience in South Asian communities. Feeling “completely shunned” and not allowed access to cultural events gays and lesbians have deployed history to recover their existence in the subcontinent’s past (Khush, 36). Even as he endorses these strategies of self-representation and the politics underlying them, Nayan Shah cautions against such a use of history. He suggests, instead, a more self-conscious use of the past to buttress claims and identities in the present. He warns that by reading “too much of us today into the past. We may trap ourselves in the need of a history to sanction our existence” (113). The uses of history have complicated assumptions about constructions of cultural identity; they indicate the ways we are positioned by and position ourselves within narratives of the past. Implicit in this project of reclaiming history are the politics of knowledge and politics of position. South Asian gays and lesbians, both in the diaspora and in the subcontinent, try to articulate the past with the contemporary moment to forge a global queer identity. These projects of reclamation should be contextualized within the histories of oppression in patriarchal, normatively heterosexual cultures as well as the racism which South Asians in the diaspora experience. Within the Indian context, gays and lesbians have turned to a Brahmanical history to seek visibility and voice but they tend to ignore the specific ways in which this tradition has oppressed women, people of lower castes and the poor.

Silenced Subject

[44]   The contested terrain of national identity is the focus of the debates promoted by the two sets of discourses set in motion by the opposers and supporters of the film. Many of the concerns are developed precisely because Fire was made by a non-resident Indian (NRI). In all aspects of its production and reception Fire represents a global film. Its actors and producers hail from different continents and it is the specificity of Mehta’s western locus of enunciation that has evoked the ire of the religious right. Rather than present a nostalgia for home, Mehta raises issues that criticize tradition. It is likely that if she had recuperated the heterosexual family, Firemay not have drawn such criticism. Such a belief gains credence when we observe the response to Bombay Boys, a film that touches on issues pertaining to gay male identity and was screened at the same time. While there was some objection to the gay themes developed in Bombay Boys it did not invoke the same kinds of protests. The different reception prompted by these movies that deal with transgressive subjects point out the anxious modes of regulation that come to bear on the figure of the woman. It is not the presence of the queer subject that appears threatening to national identity formation, it is the decentering of the heterosexual family that is contested. The discourses surrounding Fire reaffirm the centrality of woman to the heterosexual family. Effectively, they render to the margins the social, cultural and political space available for the articulation of homosexual identity. According to Rakesh Ratti, the topic of homosexuality has always been rendered invisible in India. The debates surrounding Firemay have started with the topic of homosexuality but they reenact a similar elision. They recenter the heterosexual family in definitions of Indian nationalism; even those supporting the screening of the film contest rarely the normativity of the heterosexual family.

[45]   It is noteworthy that various media outlets devoted so much attention to the debates surrounding Fire. The airing of multiple viewpoints suggests that the print media functioned in this instance as facilitating the public sphere Jürgen Habermas has identified as central to democratic society. He defines the public sphere as an arena where people meet as equals and debate issues of common concern in a rational-critical manner and then guide the state. It is significant though that aspects of discord and dissonance are highlighted in media coverage of this issue. A glaring absence is the public response to the film. The majority of viewers expressed neither shock nor horror. The Indian viewing public did not recoil from the lesbian sexuality that was portrayed in Fire. In fact when Mehta participated in an online chat the overwhelming response she received was positive (“Deepa Mehta chat”).

[46]   Writing after Fire was re-released in India, Madhu Kishwar offers a pungent critique of the ideologies promoted by the protesters as well as Mehta’s depiction of the queer subject. As someone who supported the screening of the film, Kishwar points out that there exists no history of persecution of homosexuals. “In India, homosexuality has usually been treated as one of the many expressions of human sexuality.” As editor ofManushi, a feminist magazine, she has repeatedly published authors such as Ismat Chugtai who have dealt with the theme of same sex desire. “We have faced no hostile criticism, nor upset readers. In fact, we received letters of appreciation from both male and female readers,” Kishwar asserts. In other instances too the Indian populace has remained unperturbed when the topic of homosexuality has been raised. For instance in 1987, two policewomen in the state of Madhya Pradesh got married in a public ceremony. The two women were supported by their respective families and the national press rallied around their rights to exercise sexual-marital choice. So, while the film’s protagonists point out that in Hindi “there exists no word to describe us” (lesbians), Kishwar nevertheless asserts that Indian languages and cultures are capable of expressing and coping with same sex desire and homosexual identity.

[47]   The media commentaries I have outlined so far ignored these precedents, the public sphere they made available was partial and fragmented. The most striking feature about the public sphere facilitated by the print media is its reliance on a discourse of compulsory heterosexuality. Although Fire addresses the queer subject a discussion of the status of lesbians in India is absent; instead competing discourses tried to fix lesbian identity as either native or alien. The social invisibility of gays and lesbians was not addressed in the media commentaries I examined. Media discourses instead reproduced this silencing; they emerged from and addressed a heterosexual perspective of national identity.

[48]   Singling out Mehta’s treatment of homosexuality, Kishwar dismissesFire as a boring film, one that is immature and exploits the topic of lesbianism. In this she is joined by several Indian women’s organizations and gay/lesbian activists who objected to the film’s portrayal long before the controversy erupted (Popham). (Strikingly, there were few objections to Mehta’s depiction of same-sex desire in North America, indeed Gloria Steinem hailed it as a landmark film.) Once the protests were launched against Fire and its presentation of lesbians was highlighted by the religious right, Mehta herself disingenuously foregrounded her problematic presentation of same-sex desire. She continued to reiterate, however, that her film was not about lesbians.

[49]   Despite these elisions and glaring silences, the debates engendered by the screening of Fire were indirectly productive in mobilizing gays and lesbians in India. They have created a space in the political and social arena where gays and lesbians could assert their rights and make demands. Months after the furious debates ebbed, lesbian organizations were establishing civil rights campaigns around the country. They have formed coalitions with feminist and left organizations to establish the Campaign for Lesbian Rights with the express purpose of repealing anti-sodomy laws (Bacchetta, 6).

[50]   Fire has functioned as a coming out narrative on other levels too. The Indian women’s movement has had to confront its silence on the issue of gay and lesbian rights. By highlighting the oppressive power of compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchal control over women’s lives and female bodies the debate has re-energized the women’s movement. It has helped sensitize mainstream organizations to these issues as well; for instance, left parties have had to at least modulate their assertions that homosexuality is alien to India.

The Crisis of the Center

[51]   In their presentation of the radically polarized views of the film, media commentaries also failed to recognize the possibility that the protests represented local resistance to globalization. The arguments over national identity, who is Indian and who is not, or what characteristics are Indian and which one are not, reveal a crisis. According to Kobena Mercer, “identity only becomes an issue when it is in crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty” (34). In this instance Fire in its authorship and conditions of production could easily be identified as western and hence representative of global flows. On to Fire were displaced a range of concerns and anxieties about the social and familial changes that have accompanied recent economic processes. Sociologist Veena Das sees the protests over the movie as part of a neo-swadeshi trend, one that seeks to establish the pre-eminence of Indian products and has led to the attack of vendors who sell foreign goods, such as Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola. Unlike the bourgeoisie that “aspires to the Cindy Crawford ethos of material prosperity,” the religious right has been in the vanguard of a “patriotic” preference for indigenous goods over Western ones (“Line”, 11).

[52]   Even before Fire the religious right had been successful in banning the broadcast of the Miss Universe beauty pageant and other fashion shows within India (Nair, 26). We see in these instances too that women’s bodies are the primary sites where anxieties about the influx of Western cultural influences are worked out. Scholars, such as K. N. Pannikar and Achin Vanaik, who have examined the rise of the religious right in India and the subsequent popularity of these “patriotic” gestures have pointed out that their success is a response to the uneven integration of postcolonial economies into a global capitalist system. Economic changes, or in Pannikar’s phrase the “pathology of economic development,” and the accompanying commodity fetishism have resulted in a large disenfranchised segment of the population that is unable to secure even the basic necessities of life. The religious right with its aim to reclaim a mythic Hindu past has secured support from this group by promising them benefits from a return to traditional values. Often this has translated into a regulation of women’s mobility and sexuality. The responses to Fire could be seen as symptomatic of larger geopolitical processes: cultural hangovers of the colonial era have emerged as ‘new’ sites of contestation in representational practices. The colonial hangover can be seen in two distinct areas: the role ascribed to religion in national identity and the centrality of the female figure in discourses of Indian nationalism.

[53]   The majority of the media commentaries presented the protests against Fire as a manifestation of the “saffronization” of the secular democratic nation and discussed the role of religion in democracy. The arguments presented by those who opposed and supported the screening of the film lay claim to specific interpretations of Hinduism and Indianness. Both sides invented tradition to bolster their claims of authentically representing national culture, they reframed the past with present knowledge. While the religious right claimed that Fire‘s depiction of homosexuality affronted Hindus the film’s supporters turned to a definition of Hinduism which represented tolerance. The symbolic community each of them identified as nation generated a different interpretation of India and Hindu identity. As Stuart Hall points out, national cultures construct identities by producing meanings about the nation: these are contained in the stories which are told about it, memories which connect its present with its past, and images which are constructed of it. In this instance, those seeking the screening of the film presented the intolerant attitude of the protesters as being un-Indian and un-Hindu, the Indian identity they foregrounded was one that valued tolerance and the assimilation of divergent views. During colonial rule, similarly, nationalist leaders countered British definitions of primitive Hindus and barbaric Indian traditions by laying claim to a golden age of tolerance. These arguments reveal the religious discourses that underpin the secular democratic project in India and the limits of such a civil society.

[54]   Similarly the centrality of woman in these arguments underscore the gendered nature of the imaginings of nation. The responses to the movie underscore the colonial meanings of respectable sexuality and femininity that continue to shape women’s everyday lives. Woman becomes the repository of difference and carries the mark of the authentic India; her body is the terrain where contested definitions of national identity are worked out. The figure of woman is imbricated in the terrain between modernity and tradition, carefully treading their boundary lines. She can never be wholly located in the arena of tradition lest India’s image be cast as primitive, nor can she be identified only with the modern (and hence become un-Indian). The Indian female subject has to belong to both realms, carefully apportioning modern ideas with dollops of tradition. As Lata Mani has pointed out, the civilizing processes of British colonialism in India generated specifically gendered forms of colonial discourse within which the figure of the woman plays a key role. Similarly, she figures in religious right rhetoric as a symbol of tradition and continuity. “Women become emblematic of tradition and the rewriting of tradition is largely conducted through debating the rights and status of women in society” (Bhattacharya, 163-85). Those who supported the movie appropriated the female body to narrate a trajectory of progress and modernization. Impelled by different understandings of the global, both Mehta and the religious right opportunistically used the representation of lesbian sexuality.

[55]   The responses to the movie I have enumerated highlight the problematic cultural construction of the female body as a gendered citizen. The discussion reveals that female bodies are assigned cultural meanings that affect the way females (heterosexual women, lesbians and transgendered females) constitute their social relations. My discussion reveals that female sexuality in India continues to be addressed only within the immoral West/authentic Indian paradigm established during colonialism. These arguments construct monolithic notions of western and non-western subjects in binary opposition, which cannot account for the complex and contradictory subject positions underlying the debate. They also disallow the links between patriarchies in contemporary and colonial India. Ironically, even as the debate over lesbian presence in India raged, journalists reported the auctioning of women in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. While some local women’s organizations protested this practice and others expressed shock and horror, this event elicited few responses from national organized groups.

[56]   Fire and the controversy surrounding it exemplify the eroticization of the public sphere in India. This instance highlights how the erotic becomes the site where differences between India and the West are fetishized. In a series of complex and contradictory maneuvers, Indian women are denied erotic desire as a mode of asserting agency and autonomy even as the material realities of their lives are obscured in the discussions that followed.

[57]   Rather than facilitate a global-homogenous view of the world this instance illustrates the specific ways in which the local asserts its primacy over the transnational traffic of ideas and products. The Indian reception ofFire was shaped by historical, economic and cultural processes specific to the subcontinent. Understandings of the global and the local, as I have illustrated, are shaped by a vernacular nationalism that produces a problematic female subject. In such discourses homophobia is presented as patriotism. Efforts to contest them have had limited success. Even as both the supporters of the film and protesters debated the nuances of nationalism what remained left out is the material conditions of women’s lives.


Usha Zacharias has helped formulate central ideas in this paper and has been painstakingly patient in reading several versions of it. Radha Hegde and Andrea Slane were generous with their time and ideas. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers and Anita Fellman for their comments and suggestions.


Works Cited

  • “Activists slam attacks on lesbian film.” Agence France Presse Online 3 Dec. 1998. 14 Dec. 1998.
  • Ansari, Rehan. “Indian film with lesbian scene approved by censors.”Interpress Service Online 24 Nov. 1998. 6 Dec. 1998.
  • Anu and Gitin. “The Marriage of Lila and Urmila.” A Lotus of Another Color. Ed. Rakesh Ratti. Boston: Allyson. 21-33.
  • Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Phantom Public Sphere. Ed. Bruce Robbins. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. 269-95.
  • Bacchetta, Paola. “New Campaign for Lesbian Rights in India.” Off Our Backs 29.4 (1999): 6.
  • Basu, Amrita. “Women’s Activism and the Vicissitudes of Hindu Nationalism.” Journal of Women’s History10. 4 (1999): 104-24.
  • Bhaskaran, Gautaman. “Fire explores women’s dilemma in modern world.”Hindu 20 Dec. 1998: 10.
  • Bhattacharya, Ananya. “The Habit of Ex-Nomination: Nation, Woman, and the Indian Immigrant Bourgeoisie.” A Patchwork Shawl: Chronicles of South Asian Women in America. Ed. Shamita Das Gupta. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998. 163-85.
  • Blackwood, Evelyn and Saskia Wieringa, eds. Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices Across Cultures. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.
  • Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
  • Das Gupta, Chidananda. “The ‘New’ Cinema: A Wave or a Future?” Indian Cinema Superbazaar. Eds. Aruna Vasudev and Philippe Lenglet. New Delhi: Vikas, 1983. 39-49.
  • “Deepa Mehta Chat.” 16 Nov. 1998. 12 Dec. 1998.
  • “Delhi, Pune theatres also stub out Fire.” Indian Express on the Web 4 Dec. 1998. 4 Dec. 1998.
  • Dirlik, Arlif and Rob Wilson. “Introduction.” boundary 2 21.1 (1994): 1-14.
  • Grewal, Inderpal and Caren Kaplan. “Warrior Marks: Global Womanism’s Neo-Colonial Discourse in a Multicultural Context.” Camera Obscura 29 (1996): 5-11.
  • Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson, eds. Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.
  • Hall, Stuart. “The Question of Cultural Identity.” Modernity and Its Futures. Eds. Stuart Hall et al. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992. 273-326.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric. “Introduction.” The Invention of Tradition. Eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 1-14.
  • Jain, Madhu and Sheela Raval. “Ire over Fire.” India Today Online 20 Dec. 1998. 20 Dec. 1998.
  • Kakar, Sudhir. “The Cinema as Collective Fantasy.” Indian Cinema Superbazaar. Eds. Aruna Vasudev and Philippe Lenglet. New Delhi: Vikas, 1983. 89-97.
  • Kapur, Ratna. “Fire goes up in smoke.” Hindu 13 Dec. 1998: 26.
  • Kapur, Ratna and Brenda Cossman. “Communalising Gender, Engendering Community: Women, Legal Discourse and the Saffron Agenda.” Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences. Eds. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia. London: Zed Books, 1995. 82-120.
  • Khush. “Fighting Back: An Interview with Pratibha Parmar.” A Lotus of Another Color. Ed. Rakesh Ratti. Boston: Allyson, 1993. 34-40.
  • Kishwar, Madhu. “Naïve Outpourings of a Self-Hating Indian.” Manushi Online Nov.-Dec. 1998. 12 Jan. 1999.
  • Mani, Lata. “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India.”Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. Eds. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid. New Delhi: Kali, 1989. 88-126.
  • Mehra, Sunil and Saira Menezes. “Shiv Sainiks go on Rampage in Bombay and Delhi Cinema Halls.” Outlook Online 28 Dec. 1998. 30 Dec.
  • Mercer, Kobena. “Welcome to the Jungle: Identity and Diversity in Postmodern Politics.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. John Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990. 43-71.
  • Nair, Janaki. “Bhachchan and the Battle for Bangalore.” Hindu 17 Oct. 1996: 26.
  • Nandy, Ashis. The Secret Politics of Our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1998.
  • North, Madeline. “Fighting Fire.” Guardian Unlimited 11 Dec. 1998. 11 Dec.,4273,3822920,00.html
  • Pannikar, K. N. “Countering the Revivalist Spirit.” Hindu 1 Jan. 2000: 26.
  • Pathak, Zakia and Saswati Sengupta. “Between Academy and Street: A Story of Resisting Women.” Signs22.3 (1997): 545-77.
  • Prasad, Madhava. Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1998.
  • Ram, P. R. “Looming Saffron Threat and Electoral Choices.” Economic and Political Weekly 34. 25 (19 June 1999): 1567-69.
  • Ratti, Rakesh, ed. A Lotus of Another Color: An Unfolding of the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Experience. Boston: Allyson, 1993.
  • Sangari, Kumkum and Sudesh Vaid, eds. Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. New Delhi: Kali, 1989.
  • “Sena: fanning flames of hatred.” Editorial. Hindu 13 Dec. 1998: 11.
  • Shah, Nayan. “Sexuality, Identity and the Uses of History.” A Lotus of Another Color. Ed. Rakesh Ratti. Boston: Allyson, 1993. 113-32.
  • Sharma, Kalpana. “Fighting the Moral Police.” Hindu 20 Dec. 1998: 27.
  • Sidhwa, Bapsi. “Playing with Fire.” Ms. Nov.-Dec. 1997: 76-79.
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271-313.
  • Swami, Praveen. “Furore over a film.” Frontline Online 19 Dec. 1998. 20 Dec. 1998.
  • Thapar, Vishal. “Fire Scripts Tryst with ‘Social Terrorism’.” Hindustan Times on the Web 6 Dec. 1998. 8 Dec. 1998.
  • Thomas, Rosie. “Sanctity and Scandal: The Mythologization of Mother India.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 11.3 (1989): 11-30.
  • Valverde, Mariana, ed. Sex, Power and Pleasure. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1985.
  • Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Both Epic and Feminist, From India.” New York Times 2 Oct. 1996: C16.
  • Vance, Carole, ed. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Pandora, 1984.
  • Vanaik, Achin. The Furies of Indian Communalism: Religion, Modernity and Secularization. New York: Verso, 1997.
  • Vasudev, Aruna. “The Woman: Vamp or Victim.” Indian Cinema Superbazaar. Eds. Aruna Vasudev and Philippe Lenglet. New Delhi: Vikas, 1983. 98-105.