Centre for the Study of Culture and Society

A Lesbian Critique of Fire....
(Article)

Censorship, Cinema, Film exhibition, Gender, Women, Feminism, Freedom of Expression, Homosexuality, Gays, Lesbians

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Languages -English

Place  - New Delhi

Source - The Campaign For Lesbian Rights
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Author/s : V.S

Date - 01-08-1999

Record #A0230414


A Lesbian Critique of Fire....
Today it has become impossible to separate the politics of protest, sexual rights and artistic expression from the actual images of the controversial film Fire which supposedly is and is nor about lesbianism, depending upon who is attacking or defending it. The Canada-based director herself has skilfully adopted the politics of convenience, selling her product through gay and lesbian channels in the West, where the film has received awards and accolades for its supposedly progressive depiction of women rebelling against hetero-patriarchal oppression. However, here "at home" in India, the director explicitly denied that the film had a lesbian theme, quickly clarified to the press that she was heterosexual, and reportedly said that she would be devastated if her daughter turned out to be lesbian. The director's hypocrisy, defensiveness and retreat into the safe shelter of her heterosexuality has not deceived Indian lesbians and gays for even a moment. We are well aware that we have been rigorously exploited and commodified as subject matter. The fallout of the demonstration outside New Delhi's Regal Cinema on December 7, 1998, and the fractures and dissension within the solidarity of those who participated, has been discussed elsewhere in this report. I will restrict myself to a brief comment on my experience of viewing the film itself, which in many ways is as problematic as the Shiv Sena's homophobic assaults on its screenings.

As frame followed frame, I began to experience a sense of growing alienation from the narrative being played out on the screen. This may have been because it swiftly became obvious that the director was alienated from the central dilemma of the "non-lesbian" "lesbian" sisters-in-law around whom the plot is centred. There was absolutely no exploration of the immense frustration and tension that comes from the overwhelming strain of trying to nurture an intimate sexual bond in a crowded household without privacy, autonomy or mobility, as is the case in so many families where doors cannot be locked or separate beds claimed. Most gays and lesbians in the Indian social context will testify to the psychological repercussions of being denied a reasonable space in which to spend sexual time with a lover. Nor does Fire attempt to probe the profound guilt, shock, fear, anger, shame, crippling ambivalences and equivocations and other anarchic and threatening emotions that accompany sexual practices generally considered perverted, criminal and taboo.

The critical question of what constitutes the lesbian! gay! transgender/ transsexual "self" (if there is such a thing), and how we work these selves into our daily existence as social and political creatures, a question we queers grapple with all our lives, simply glides past the consciousness of our screen "non-lesbian" "lesbian" lovers shackled in their respective sexless and loveless marriages. The sisters-in-law are too busy looking beautiful as they spread saris to dry on their terrace while the exoticised tapestry of congested, ritual-ornamented middle-class life somehow stitches itself into being within the household and in the lanes below. The director carefully keeps our heroines at a lyric distance from the anguish and the euphoria of lesbian social realitie
s, as well as from each other (the brief sex scene was as appealing as watered milk), from their uncaring husbands, and most of all from the excruciating but essential project of claiming some kind of stable selfhood once the layers of illusion, and the illusory protections these offer, are peeled away, violently, unpredictably, and often invisibly.

The director's commitment to inauthenticity becomes even more transparent through her rampant use of "othering" devices. The film opens and closes with the image of Muslim monuments in imperial marble and common stone—the Taj Mahal, a legendary celebration of heterosexual love, and the Sufi dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, refuge of the destitute and the despairing, as well as of poets and agonised emperors. The director inserts parodic representations of scenes from the Ramayana in various fragmented forms as a comment on the "realistic" narrative, throughout the film. The characters are further "othered" by being depicted as victims—through class (the blackmailing, masturbating servant who exposes the lesbian love affair to the household), through infirmity (the mute, paralysed, old mother-in-law, privileged witness of the servant's ejaculations) or through the addiction to modes of excess (the brutal younger brother rents out pornographic videos while his "oriental" mistress dreams about emigrating to the Far East); the tormented elder brother fixates on a guru and arbitrarily imposes Gandhian experiments in celibacy upon his wife). The sisters-in-law are excessive, of course, because they are "non-lesbian" "lesbians".

Where are the fully-fleshed, psychologically convincing individuals in this tableau of two-dimensional pathologies? Where is the reliable index of "normalcy", empathetic and balanced articulation, nuanced logic, sensitive descriptions of queer realities? Perhaps as a disempowered minority we simply do nor matter to the director except as compelling and profitable subject matter. As a lesbian spectator I found the film so plastic, the aestheticism so deliberate, the satire so laboured, that to argue whether Fire is lesbian-themed or not is as circuitous and futile as insisting that a doughnut is defined by its fat ring of fried pastry, not its hole.
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