What Went Behind Bollywood's Most Controversial Kissing Scene
It's been almost two decades since we were initiated to the wisdom and ideals of Radha and Sita from Deepa Mehta's Fire : A tale of two powerful women stuck in a patriarchal setup, who realize there's so much more to life than keeping their husbands and the society happy. But that's not why the movie is remembered. Over the years, Fire came to be known as the first Indian movie to show a lesbian relationship on screen, for which it was subjected to huge backlash.
Almost 20 years since its release, the three women associated with the movie: Deepa Mehta, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, came together to discuss the film at the recently concluded Women in the World conference that was held in Delhi last week. And they made us realize just how significant the film was for the quintessential Indian woman. First of all, if you're one among those who've still not seen the film for whatever reason, drop all plans and watch it today (it's on YouTube, and finding it is as easy as finding the new Justin Bieber song).
In a clip presented at the session, we were reminded of how posters were torn and theatres damaged by Shiv Sena activists, who thought the movie was against Bhartiya Sanskriti . During their session, the director remembered how she was told that there were 'no lesbians in India' and that she should be banned for introducing this 'western devil' in the country.
Speaking at the conference, Deepa and Shabana emphasized on how the film was passed by the Censor board then, that too without a single cut. The movie was released in its original form, protested against nationally, but never censored. Keeping in mind the ongoing debate around the present Censor board chief, the panelists were asked whether they thought 'things were worse now?' To which Shabana replied, 'That's the understatement of the year!'
In a chat, that ranged from Nandita's kissing preference between Shabana and Rahul Khanna (her co-actor in Earth ), to Deepa's inspiration for the film's characters, we concluded that a film like Fire would never have seen the light of the day had it been made in 2015. Moderator, author/historian William Dalrymple, asked Deepa if she was prepared for the film to find itself in the middle of controversy, and she answered, "I might be naive, but I am not a sucker for punishment. I had no clue this would happen."
This was also Nandita's first film, and she specified how glad she was to have been a part of it, no matter the controversy. She said, "It was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had. Sita was a lot like me: She was impulsive and a rebel. For me, it was a film about the lack of choices women have, patriarchy, and the relationship that these two women shared."
For Shabana, it was a tougher decision. Talking about that, she said, "I was aware of the fact that this film will work against me considering all the work we were doing with slum women at that time. Javed being as sensible as he is said, 'Do you like the script?' and I said yes. He asked, 'Will you be able to stand by it because there will be controversy around it' and I said yes. Similarly, Zoya (Akhtar) who was just 20 then, read the script and when I expressed concern about the whole lesbian angle, she said 'So?' and that's when I knew that the film will get all sorts of reactions and that I still wanted to do it."
"I was prepared for people to react in all kinds of ways to it, because we understand how diverse the country is. It's not all modern. And we knew not everybody would react in the same manner. Some would be moved, some would be angered, some would be frightened, but at least the process of questioning would start, and for an actor that's the maximum your creation can achieve," she added.
Considering the time it's been since the movie first came out, the ladies accepted and appreciated the change that has come about in the society towards same sex relationships. Nandita said, "Back in the day, even journalists from leading English dailies couldn't use the term lesbian. 'This kind of relationship' they would call it, and were all visibly awkward. There's a dialogue in the film where I say that there is no Indian word to describe how we feel for each other. Fire started this conversation, mainstreamed it to the extent that we're still discussing it today because it's still as relevant."
Deepa added, "And not just in India. Earlier this month, the British Film Institute included Fire in a list of top 10 feminist films ever. And that makes you think, really."
Considering the current frame that the society finds itself in, one couldn't ignore the discussion around growing creative intolerance. Shabana framed her concerns perfectly when she said, "For a long time I said, 'Oh this is the fringe element.' The media has a very strong role to play in this because now it's very easy for these fringe elements to stand up and protest against something that hurt their sensibilities. When I'd shaved off my head for Water , there was a fatwa against me because in Islam women are not supposed to shave off their head. And, Javed's reaction was 'Go fry an egg!' These defunct group of people, who have nothing better to do, suddenly find themselves on national television and so they get very excited by it. They need to be ignored!"
Towards the end, Nandita made a statement that resonated with everything we've been saying about Bollywood's choices. She said, "In Bollywood, everyone feels the need to be safe, and they stay away from subjects that are sort of political in nature, because they don't want to jeopardize their career or whatever. Everyone avoids taking a stand. In the film industry, I'm called an activist and the activists think of me as an actor."
For what it's worth, we think of you as so much more than just an actor, Nandita. All three of you, actually. Years later, we can't help but thank this team for making this film, and for standing by it.