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History’s Flirtation with Fire: Documenting the Controversy

Article (64kbs) - The Campaign For Lesbian Rights, 01-08-1999. By The Naz Foundation (India) Trust

Record Number : A0230416

Click to browse by keyword: Cinema Film exhibition Censorship Obscenity Gender Women Feminism Homosexuality Gays Lesbians Politics Politicians Public Sphere Public Accountability Culture

 

History’s Flirtation with Fire: Documenting the Controversy
Compiled by The Naz Foundation (India) Trust, New Delhi

The controversy surrounding Deepa Mehta’s award-winning, internationally acclaimed lesbian theme movie Fire hogged headlines and prime TV space for months after the Shiv Sena’s protests against its screening. Several issues sprang up during the life of this controversy. Did Fire claim to portray accurately the existence of, and realities of, women-women relationships in this country’s middle class? Did the filmmaker seek to offend the sensibilities of the Hindu community by naming her protagonists Sita and Radha? Did the BJP-led coalition government effectively address the issue of extra-legal censorship? And in private and public for a across the country, again and again the same question was asked—Are there really any lesbians in India, anyway? To only that last question will we provide an answer. The rest we leave to your judgement. Through this timeline we hope to bring you the facts. You decide.

Fire or no Fire, women who love women abound in this country and across the world. Indeed, anywhere you find human existence. This effort is dedicated to all the brave lesbian and bisexual women that make up the community in New Delhi. It is to preserve democracy, the right to free expression, and not least a community’s existence, that they stood firm outside the Regal cinema, outside the house of the Home minister and in for a across this city to place Fire and the plight of sexual minorities if not on the broader Indian agenda, then at least on the record. In the face of horrifying hate, an indifferent government and with precious little resources, the community in New Delhi stood up in defiance.

Note: All information sourced from print dailies, specifically the Times of India (New Delhi and Mumbai editions), the Pioneer, the Indian Express (New Delhi and Mumbai editions), the Hindustan Times, the Asian Age, the Telegraph and the Tribune The life of a controversy

13 May 1998
English version of Fire submitted to Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for clearance.

8 June
English version of Fire cleared for distribution and public screening by CBFC without a single cut.

21 August
Dubbed Hindi version of Fire submitted to CBFC for clearance.

14 September
Hindi version of Fire cleared for distribution and public screening by CBFC after it was ascertained that in the sequence depicting a servant masturbating, he was nor at the time watching the Ramayana on video. The Ministry for Information and Broadcasting (I&B) says that Fire’s producers then “voluntarily” changed the name of one protagonist from Sita to Nita.

13 November
All-India release of Fire. Five theatres in New Delhi alone begin screening the film.

25 November
The Jam Vahini Samiti in Mumbai threatens to disrupt screenings of Fire if the film is not officially banned. 1 December A delegation of the ruling Shiv Sena’s women’s wing Mahila Aghadi Sena (MAS) approaches Maharashtra state minister for culture Pramod Navalkar to lodge a protest against the screening of Fire. The delegation says the film is morally offensive on account of its lesbian scenes and demands that it be banned.

2 December
200 activists of the Shiv Sena MAS storm Cinemax theatre in Mumbai at 1:00 pm and forcibly stop screening of Fire. A short while later, New Empire cinema in the Fort is also attacked, and property is damaged. Posters are burnt at both venues and managers are compelled to refund ticket money. 10 protesters are booked under “offence of rioting”. Reel of the film at both cinemas is sealed.
• Maharashtra Chief Minister (CM) Manohar Joshi praises Shiv Sainik’s actions.
• Pramod Navalkar denies any knowledge of the Shiv Sena vandalism.
• Balkrishna Shroff of Fire’s distributor PTI says further screening of the film has been suspended.

3 December
• 29 persons, including three municipal corporators and three Shiv Sena shakha pramukhs arrested in Mumbai in connection with the vandalism of New Empire and Cinemax theatres.
• Cinema hall managers take Fire our of theatres in Mumbai.
• In Pune, Hindi version of Fire taken out of theatres following protests by the Pantit Pawan Sangharana.
• The Bajrang Dal attacks twin theatres Rajpalace and Rajmahal in Surat where Fire is being screened, destroying everything in sight and forcing the audience to flee.
• Minister of state for I&B Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi seeks a private screening of the film. Adds that from the reaction to the film so far, it is evident that the theme is alien to Indian culture.
• Barely 10 minutes into the 12:30 pm show of Fire, more than 30 Shiv Sainiks attack Regal cinema in New Delhi. One Sena worker arrested while giving TV interview to presspersons assembled outside the theatre. Future screenings of Fire at Regal are cancelled.
• Four other theatres in New Delhi stop screening the movie, despite at least one or them being provided security by the Delhi Police to ensure safe future screening.
• Several video rental and retail shops take Fire off their shelves in New Delhi.
• Delhi Shiv Sena unit chief Jai Bhagwan Goel, in a statement to the press, claims that the party has “struck a deal” with the distributors of Fire and the film will not be in circulation anymore.

4 December
• Jai Bhagwan Goel and Shiv Sena joint secretary Dhruv Chand Pathak held for attack on Regal. The two accused are released on bail later in the day. Five other Shiv Sena workers are identified for arrest.
• The Ministry for I&B, headed by Union minister Pramod Mahajan and Mukhrar Naqvi refers Fire back to the CBFC. In an official release, the ministry said Fire had caused public resentment leading to violent demonstrations and opposition across the country.
• Dilip Kumar, Mahesh Bhatt, Javed Akhtar, Yash Chopra, Arul Setalvad, Justice (retd) Hosbet Suresh and Teesra Seralvad in a petition urge Supreme Court (sc) Chief Justice A.S. Anand to seek an explanation from the Maharashtra government for its failure to provide protection to the screening of a film.

5 December
• Mumbai Youth Association declares its resolve to move the sc in protest against a sequence in Fire which depicts a Chinese character abusing an Indian character.
• Editor of the women’s magazine Manushi, Madhu Kishwar, criticises the government’s decision, saying the “film has nothing which deserves such treatment.

6 December
• Police and people successfully repel West Bengal Hindu Mahasabha and Shiv Sena demonstrations outside the Chaplin theatre in Calcutta where Fire was being screened.

7 December
• Dilip Kumar, Javed Akhrar, Javed Anand, Teesta Setalvad and Musharraf Chawdhry file a petition in the SC seeking a smooth screening of Fire. The petition names Manohar Joshi and Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray among the respondents.
• 32 organisations including lesbian, artistes' and women’s groups together with concerned citizens including Fire director Deepa Mehta and producer Bobby Bedi stage a peaceful protest against the Shiv Sena’s vandalism and review of Fire by censors outside Regal cinema in Connaught Place.

8 December
• The National Commission for Women condemns the ‘violence and vandalism’ of the Shiv Sena.
• After raising resources to print posters protesting against the Shiv Sena, albeit illegally as printers refused to state their name on the posters as required by law, civil right’s and women’s groups along with the Republican Party of India in Mumbai, find themselves saddled with 20,000 posters that the police will not allow them to put up. Activists determined to continue putting up the posters.

9 December
• SC declines to issue notice on a limited plea for providing security to the producers of Fire.
• SC fixes date to hear a plea by Janakpuri Residents Welfare Council seeking an apology from the filmmakers for hurting Hindu sentiments by portraying lesbianism in Fire.
• Congress clarifies stand on Fire. Spokespersons Ajit Jogi and Girija Vyas say Congress is ‘not against the film’, and urge people to go to courts to protest and not indulge in violence.
• 30 demonstrators staging a protest against Shiv Sena vandalism of Fire outside New Empire theatre in Mumbai are rounded up, arrested and pushed into police vans.

12 December
• Shiv Sainiks strip down to their underwear at a ‘chaddi morcha’ outside actor Dilip Kumar’s residence in Mumbai. Police arrest them, but all are released the same day on personal bonds.
• Nearly 100 artistes, lesbians, intellectuals and politicians stage a candle-light protest outside Union Minister for Home L.K. Advani’s house, to protest against the Sena’s assault on Dilip Kumar.

13 December
• Bal Thackeray objects to use of Hindu names Sita and Radha for protagonists in Fire. Demands that the same be changed to Muslim names Shabana and Saira.

14 December
• Pandemonium in the Rajya Sabha as Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam asserts that Dilip Kumar is a Pakistani. Chairman is forced to adjourn the House without transacting any business.
• Bal Thackeray alleges that Fire was cleared ‘in a day’ because of the close ties between the former minister for I&B Sushma Swaraj and Shabana Azmi.
• In response to a PIL filed by Javed Akhtar, Deepa Mehta, Javed Anand, Teesta Setalvad and Musharraf Chawdhry, the SC orders the Union and Maharashtra governments to provide security to those who had moved the court for continued screening of Fire.

15 December
• Mumbaikars crowd the promenade of Girgaum Chowpatty in South Mumbai in protest against the Shiv Sena’s vandalism of theatres screening Fire and the attack on Dilip Kumar’s residence.
• SC issues notice to Union and Maharashtra governments seeking a police investigation into violent protests over screening of Fire.
• For the second day, proceedings in both houses of Parliament dominated by the Fire controversy.
• Sushma Swaraj denies allegations that she influenced the CBFC to ‘clear Fire in a day.’

17 December
• Naib Imam of the Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari criticises Dilip Kumar, saying there are other issues which require the support of creative people. However, he condemned the Shiv Sena for trying to give “a communal colour” to the whole issue.

18 December
• Screening of Fire which was to resume at Mumbai’s Cinemax theatre called off due to review by censors.

21 December
• Mukhtar Naqvi says more than 100 representatives from various organisations as well as MPs had been received regarding the film, adding that everyone said there was something wrong with it. • Deepa Mehta complains about the 'hijacking' of her film by the lesbian community.
• Mumbai-based Tanzeem Allahu Akbar demands ban on Fire. President Anwar Sadat says that “according to Islam, relations between woman and woman is punishable as that between man and man.
• The Assam branch of the Kasturba Gandhi Foundation forces Apsara cinema hall in Guwahati to withdraw Fire, accusing it of depicting women in a poor light and being morally degenerate.

23 December
•CBFC chief Asha Parekh says she has not seen Fire, and that the Board is still reviewing it.

26 December
• Shiv Sainiks stage a demonstration in Varanasi where Fire is being screened amidst tight security. Show screened without interruption:
• General Secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam J Jayalalitha publicly condemns the screening of a movie like Fire.

29 December
• The Nagrik Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti organises screening of Fire amidst tight security at the Sheila Cinema in Delhi. However, the show was not for public viewing, but for select invitees.
• The Shiv Sena hardens its stand on Fire with Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray saying that Fire continued to be objectionable even though the Hindu name of a key protagonist in it was changed.

2 January 1999
• Deepa Mehta states that she is not fully supportive of lesbianism and describes the decision to send Fire back to the censors as a “knee-jerk” reaction.

3 January
Eight individuals attack Rakhra Picture Palace in Patiala, where Fire is to he screened, with swords and lathis.

4 January SC hears contempt petition filed by Dilip Kumar, Mahesh Bhatt and other personalities against the Maharashtra government for failing to ensure the release of Fire in violation of the apex court’s order.

10 January Bajrang Dal announces that it will move the court against Fire as well as the book So That You Can Know Me, an anthology of the work of Pakistani women writers, saying these “hurt Hindu sentiments”.

15 January 34 Shiv Sena workers attack a theatre in Bilaspur where Fire is being screened for the second time. Posters are torn off before police turn up. Screening continues after a half-hour delay.
23 January Congress president Sonia Gandhi blasts the ruling Shiv Sena-BJP coalition state government for “disrupting films, digging cricket pitches and rejecting the Srikishna report.”

12 February
• The CBFC clears Fire for public viewing again without a single cut. Announces that the movie will be rereleased for screening shortly
• The SC asks the Mumbai Police about follow-up action on the violent incidents against screenings of Fire. Directs the Union government and Delhi Police to file similar affidavits within four weeks.

24 February Uday Dhurat, producer of the controversial play Mee Nathuram Godsey Boltoy urges Maharashtra government to lift the ban on the staging of his play in light of the clearance given to Fire.

25 February
• Recensored, uncut Fire released for public screening by the CBFC.
• Fire producer Harish Sugandh says that they will not release Fire without the Shiv Sena’s permission.

26 February
• In New Delhi, uncut Fire (English and Hindi) opens.
• In Mumbai, Fire’s producers make a ‘slight change’ upon a demand from Bal Thackeray. The names of both protagonists to be dropped altogether.

6 March
• Four of the five theatres in New Delhi that were screening the re-released Fire take it off the screen because of low public interest.
• Shiv Sena Delhi chief Jai Bhagwan Goel says that the Sena has made its point and will not oppose the re-screening of Fire. He. adds that it is now up to other social organisations to follow up on the initiative.

On 3 December 1998, the day Regal cinema was attacked by Shiv Sainiks for displaying an allegedly vulgar and obscene film, the following soft-porn movies played in theatres across the National Capital, one barely a few feet away from Regal cinema: Generous Lovers, Separate Vacation, First Kiss, His Wife and Her Lover, Cover Me, Take Two, Red Rose White Rose, Silent Night Deadly Night, A Woman Scorned, Bikini Island, BedPartners, Point of Seduction, You Love Only Once, Beach Babes, KacchiJawani, The Other Woman, Dark Dancer, Dangerous Touch, Kamasutra

Note: The Indian Constitution protects your right to choose to watch these movies.

“Quote—Unquote”
Ek aurat is doing intercourse with the other. On camera. What message are we sending to the public? —Shiv Sena Delhi Unit chief, Jai Bhagwan Goel

Has lesbianism spreadlike an epidemic that it should be portrayed as a guideline to unhappy wives not to dependon their husbands? —Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray

Even if these things are happening, what's the need to show it?—Jai Bhagwan Goel

Thanks to the film, even those who didn’t know anything about Lesbianism are now being introduced to it. —Shiv Sena MLA Shrikant Sarmalkar

What do you gain by showing lesbianism? As it is, the institution of marriage is breaking down. This will make it worse. —Jai Bhagwan Goel

Do we have lesbian culture in our families? Surely, this film has put all of us in a shameful light. Humko chullu bharpani mein doob mama chahiye. —Shiv Sena leader Madhukar Sarpordar

The Mahabharat and the Ramayana don't have it (lesbianism). If it's in the Sutras, why do you have to bring them into society? —Jai Bhagwan Goel

There can be no argument that lesbianism is unnatural and is regarded as such the world over —Former Union minister for I&B, Sushma Swaraj

Lesbianism is a pseudo-feminist trend borrowed from the West and is no part of lndian womanhood —Minister of State for I&B Mukhtar Naqvi

When you are heir to the breathtakingly permissive Kama Sutra, why confine yourself to the missionary position on sexuality?... Homosexuality didn’t need a visa to enter India, it was already here. —Journalist Bachi Karkaria

They’ve made the film a cause celebre for reasons way above the quality of the film I find I have no choice but to defend it. —Karan Thapar

A homosexual relationship between two women does not merely develop out of pure lack of male attention. In that sense, calling it a film about Lesbian love would be doing an injustice to Lesbianism. What the film does do, though, is create a space for feminine sexuality. —Kavita Panjabi, lecturer at Jadavpur University

So what's the signal? If you’re suppressed sexually or denied conjugal rights, there is an easy and exciting way out—go lesbian. So, lesbianism is not a sexual proclivity but it is something one can resort to as a second best. I am surprised Lesbian sympathisers are not agitating at this downgrading handed out to female homosexuality. implication is—if you can’t for some reason do it right, do it wrong. —Journalist Lakshmi Lal We didn't beat up anyone in the audience. We stopped the film, not the audience. We believe, do n’t kill the thief kill his mother (Ha! Ha! Ha!) —Jai Bhagwan Goel

 

     

     

     

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