As India continues to celebrate the landmark Supreme Court ruling, which legalized gay sex in the world’s largest democracy, this Throwback Thursday we’re looking back at “Fire,” Deepa Mehta’s powerful drama about forbidden love that was first debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 1996.
The film was the first in Mehta’s Elements trilogy, which also consisted of the 1998 film “Earth” and 2005’s “Water.”
Starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, “Fire” delved into the story of two young women in troubled marriages as they struggle to express their true selves while confined by tradition. The screenplay for “Fire” was loosely based on the 1942 Urdu short story “The Quilt” by Ismat Chughtai.
Das portrayed Sita, a newlywed who now lives with her husband and in-laws above the store they own. One of her new relatives is her sister-in-law Radha (played by Azmi), who also feels trapped and disconnected from her husband.
The two women find themselves drawn to each other as confidants and quickly begin sharing their thoughts about their struggling marriages. One thing inevitably leads to another. “One day, simply and directly, [Sita] kisses the older woman, and the next day the older woman dresses her hair,” was how Roger Ebert described it in his review. “Soon they are in each other’s arms, I think, although the sex scenes are shot in shadows so deep that censors will be more baffled than offended.”
While, as Ebert pointed out, the love scenes in “Fire” were deliberately vague, the did create a certain amount of controversy upon its release in early December 1998. Protestors vandalized posters and harassed audience members outside of several screenings in Bombay and Delhi and the then-Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Manohar Joshi, praised the groups trying to get the film shut down. “ “I congratulate them for what they have done. The film’s theme is alien to our culture.” (Incidentally, Joshi’s sentiments are common among those who want to shut down films with LGBT themes in India to this day, as the recent banning of “Love, Simon” showed.)
But Mehta and other prominent members of India’s film community fought back against the protests, holding a candlelight vigil and a counter protest of their own. After a couple of more incidents, the film would successfully reopen in February 1999.
In addition to the continued praise for the two leading actresses’ performances in “Fire,” and its place in Indian cinematic history for being the first mainstream Indian film centering on the love between two women, “Fire” is notable for inspiring a generation of LGBT performers who went on to create films and other forms of art of their own.
Actress Fawzia Mirza told NBC News last year that seeing “Fire” left a deep impression on her in the 1990s. “For me, [it] portrayed the beauty of the connection between women,” Mirza said. “I think that whether you are queer or not, lesbian or not, there is a beauty in the stories and the connections between women.”
Decades later, Mirza would cast Azmi as her mother in her film “Signature Move,” which is about a closeted Pakistani American lesbian. “Signature Move” is currently on the film festival circuit and Azmi told NBC that she is still often asked about “Fire” by fans.
“Because the issue hadn’t been spoken about a lot of lesbians came up to me and gave them courage to be more open,” Azmi said. “India’s audiences are not a monolith and I knew people would react in different ways — some with shock, some with surprise, some completely denying it, and others feeling grateful. And that would start a process of questioning.”
As we revisit “Fire” in 2018 it is impossible not to think of the real-life equivalents of Sita and Radha and what they may be feeling in the wake of the overturning of Section 377. Hopefully, they feel as if they have moved one step closer to living their truth.