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Movie poster
Directed by Deepa Mehta
Produced by Bobby Bedi
Deepa Mehta
Written by Deepa Mehta
Starring Nandita Das
Shabana Azmi
Music by A R Rahman
Cinematography Giles Nuttgens
Editing by Barry Farrell
Distributed by Zeitgeist Films
Release date(s) 6 September 1996 (Toronto Film Festival)
Running time 108 min. UK
104 min. US
Country India
Language Hindi
Followed by Earth (1998)
Water (2005)

Fire (Hindi: फायर) is a 1996 film directed and written by Deepa Mehta, starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. It is the first of Mehta's Elements trilogy. It is followed by Earth (1998) and Water (2005).

The film is loosely based on Ismat Chugtai's 1941 story Lihaf (The Quilt).[1] It is the first Indian film to explicitly show homosexual relations. After its 1998 release in India, right-wing Hindu groups staged several violent protests, setting off a flurry of public dialogue around issues such as homosexuality and freedom of speech.



The film is set in contemporary Delhi, India, in the household of a joint family which runs a fast-food and video business in the ground floor of their two-story home. The protagonists are the two daughters-in-law, both of whom have joined the family by marriage: Sita (Nandita Das), who is newly wed to the younger son Jatin (Javed Jaffrey); and Radha (Shabana Azmi), who has been married to the elder son Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) for 15 years. Both couples are unhappy. Jatin, who feels he has been pressured into marriage by the family, neglects Sita and continues to see his Chinese girlfriend. Ashok has chosen to become a tapasvin (an ascetic) after discovering that Radha is infertile, and has been using her to test his resolve in celibacy for 13 years. The two women turn to each other for solace and become lovers. Tipped off by a servant, Ashok discovers them in bed together. Sita leaves, while Radha, who wishes to explain matters to Ashok, promises to meet her outside to start a new life together. In the confrontation that follows, Radha's sari catches fire from the kitchen stove and Ashok abandons her in flames. In the final scene, the two women are reunited.

Events surrounding screenings of Fire in India

Fire was passed uncut by India's censor board (the Central Board of Film Certification) in May 1998 with a rating of Adult, the only condition being that the character Sita's name be changed to Nita.[2] The film was first screened on 13 November 1998 and ran to full houses in most metropolitan cities throughout India for almost 3 weeks.

On 2 December more than 200 Shiv Sanaiks stormed a Cinemax theatre in suburban Goregaon in Mumbai, smashing glass panes, burning posters and shouting slogans. They compelled managers to refund tickets to moviegoers. On 3 December a Regal theatre in Delhi was similarly stormed. Bajrang Dal workers with lathis invaded Rajpalace and Rajmahal in Surat, breaking up everything in sight and driving away frightened audiences. Theatres in Surat and Pune stopped screening the film on the same day. When attackers attempted to shut down a screening in Calcutta, however, ushers and audience fought back and the movie stayed open. Twenty-nine people were arrested in Mumbai in connection with these incidents.[2][3] Chief Minister Manohar Joshi supported the acts of vandalism, saying, "I congratulate them for what they have done. The film's theme is alien to our culture."[2]

On 4 December the film was referred back to the Censor Board for a re-examination. The Indian government was criticized for siding with the vandalizers.[4] On 5 December a group of film personalities and human rights activists, including Deepa Mehta, Indian movie star Dilip Kumar, and director Mahesh Bhatt, submitted a 17-page petition to the Supreme Court asking that a "sense of security" be provided, in addition to basic protection, so that the film could be screened smoothly.[5] The petition referenced articles 14, 19, 21, 25 of the Indian Constitution, which promise the right to equality, life and liberty, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of conscience, free expression of religious practice and belief, and the right to hold peaceful meetings.[6]

Shabana at the sets of the movie Fire

On 7 December Deepa Mehta led a candlelit protest in New Delhi with activists from 32 organizations against the withdrawal of Fire, carrying placards, shouting anti-Shiv Sena slogans and crying for the freedom of right to expression.[7] On 12 December about 60 Shiv Sena men stripped down to their underwear and squatted in front of Dilip Kumar's house to protest his support of Fire. 22 were arrested and Kumar, as well as others involved in the production of the film were provided with police security.[8]

Cinemax reopened screenings of Fire on 18 December but a hundred members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vandalized posters at the Sundar Theatre in Kanpur despite the police commissioner's reassurance that protection has been arranged.[6] Fire was re-released without cuts by the Censor Board on 12 February 1999.[9] Theatre screenings were resumed on February 26 and continued without incident.[10]


In the initial weeks following the release of Fire, reviewers praised the film's explicit depiction of a homosexual relationship as "gutsy",[11] "explosive",[12] "pathbreaking".[13] Following the Shiv Sena attacks on the film, prominent party members said Fire had been targeted because it was an "immoral and pornographic" film "against Indian tradition and culture." The lesbian relationship depicted in the film was criticized as "not a part of Indian history or culture."[14][15][16] Other politicians of the Hindu right voiced fears that the film would "spoil [Indian] women" and younger generations by teaching "unhappy wives not to depend on their husbands" and informing the public about "acts of perversion." [17] Speaking on the dangers of Fire, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackery compared lesbianism to "a sort of a social AIDS" which might "spread like an epidemic."[3][6][18] Furthermore, Thackery claimed that the film was an attack on Hinduism because the protagonists were named Sita and Radha, both significant goddesses in Hindu belief, and that he would withdraw his objections to the film if the names were changed to Muslim names.[19]

A statement issued from the Shiv Sena's women's wing said, "If women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse, reproduction of human beings will stop." [6][20] Critics charged the Shiv Sena of committing "cultural terrorism" [15] and of using the rhetoric of "Indian tradition" to protest images of female independence and suppress freedom of speech.[21] "The justification for [Shiv Sena's] action... demonstrates that Indian 'culture' for the Sangh Parivar is defined essentially in terms of male control over female sexuality." [6][22]

Gay activist Ashok Row Kavi criticized the Shiv Sena's protests as "gay-bashing" and disputed their claims that lesbianism was "against Indian tradition", indicating that homosexuality is in fact abundantly present in Hinduism and that the criminalization of homosexuality was a legacy of British colonialism, heavily informed by Christianity.[17] Pointing to evidence of lesbianism in Indian tradition, he said, "What's wrong in two women having sex? If they think it doesn't happen in the Indian society they should see the sculptures of Khajuraho or Konark." [6][23]

Feminist critics of Mehta's films argue that Mehta's portrayal of women and gender relations is over-simplified. Noted Indian feminist authors Mary E. John and Tejaswini Niranjana wrote in 1999 that Fire reduces patriarchy to the denial and control of female sexuality. The authors make the point that the film traps itself in its own rendering of patriarchy:

Control of female sexuality is surely one of the ideological planks on which patriarchy rests. But by taking this idea literally, the film imprisons itself in the very ideology it seeks to fight, its own version of authentic reality being nothing but a mirror image of patriarchal discourse. 'Fire' ends up arguing that the successful assertion of sexual choice is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition--indeed, the sole criterion--for the emancipation of women. Thus the patriarchal ideology of 'control' is first reduced to pure denial -- as though such control did not also involve the production and amplification of sexuality -- and is later simply inverted to produce the film's own vision of women's liberation as free sexual 'choice.' (1999:582)

Whatever subversive potential 'Fire' might have had (as a film that makes visible the 'naturalised' hegemony of heterosexuality in contemporary culture, for example) is nullified by its largely masculinist assumption that men should not neglect the sexual needs of their wives, lest they turn lesbian (1999:583).

The authors additionally argue that viewers must ask tough questions from films such as Fire that place themselves in the realm of "alternative" cinema and aim to occupy not only aesthetic, but also political space (Economic and Political Weekly, March 6-13, 1999).

Madhu Kishwar, then-editor of Manushi, wrote a highly critical review of Fire, finding fault with the depiction of the characters in the film as a "mean spirited caricature of middle class family life among urban Indians". She claimed that homosexuality was socially accepted in India as long as it remained a private affair, adding that Mehta "did a disservice to the cause of women... by crudely pushing the Radha-Sita relationship into the lesbian mould," as women would now be unable to form intimate relationships with other women without being branded as lesbians.[24]

Deepa Mehta expressed frustration in interviews that the film was consistently described as a lesbian film. She said, "lesbianism is just another aspect of the film...Fire is not a film about lesbians," but rather about "the choices we make in life." [25][26]


  • Karishma Jhalani as Young Radha
  • Ramanjit Kaur as Young Radha's mother
  • Dilip Mehta as Young Radha's father
  • Javed Jaffrey as Jatin
  • Nandita Das as Sita
  • Vinay Pathak as Guide at Taj Mahal
  • Kushal Rekhi as Biji
  • Shabana Azmi as Radha
  • Ranjit Chowdhry as Mundu
  • Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Ashok
  • Alice Poon as Julie
  • Ram Gopal Bajaj as Swamiji
  • Ravinder Happy as Oily man in video shop
  • Devyani Saltzman as Girl in video shop
  • Sunil Chabra as Milkman on bicycle
  • Avijit Dutt as Julie's father
  • Shasea Bahadur as Julie's brother
  • Meher Chand as Goddess Sita
  • Bahadur Chand as God Ram
  • Puran as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
  • Sohan Lal as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
  • Meher as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
  • Amarjit Chand as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
  • Karam Chand as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe member
  • Kabir Chowdhury as Boy in video shop
  • Laurence Côte as French tourist at the Taj Mahal


The soundrack of Fire was composed and performed by A. R. Rahman except for tracks Ramayan and Allah Hu. Julie's Theme and China Town were added as bonus tracks and were not used in the movie. A. R. Rahman reused or reworked on some of his acclaimed Bombay songs.

Soundtrack by A. R. Rahman
Released 1996
Recorded Panchathan Record Inn and AM Studios
Genre Feature film soundtrack
Producer Deepa Mehta
A. R. Rahman chronology
Kadhal Desam
Mr. Romeo
Track # Song Singer(s) Lyrics
1 Bombay Theme Intro Instrumental (Instrumental)
2 Radha and Sita Love Theme Instrumental (Instrumental)
3 Sita's Theme Instrumental (Instrumental)
4 Radha's Theme A. R. Rahman (Instrumental)
5 Antha Arabikkadaloram Instrumental Vairamuthu
6 Mundus Fantasy Part 1 Instrumental (Instrumental)
7 Mundus Fantasy Part 2 Instrumental (Instrumental)
8 Desire Night Instrumental (Instrumental)
9 Bangle's Theme Instrumental (Instrumental)
10 Ramayan Ramayan Theatrical Group (Ramayan Theatrical Group)
11 Allah Hu Qawwali by Miraj Ahmed (Qawwali by Miraj Ahmed)
12 Radhas Confession Instrumental (Instrumental)
13 Passion Instrumental (Instrumental)
14 Bombay Theme Finale Radha's Soul Instrumental (Instrumental)
15 Julies Theme Instrumental (Instrumental)
16 China Town Instrumental (Instrumental)


  1. ^ Gopinath, Gayatri (2005) (Book). Impossible Desires. Durham and London: Duke University press. 
  2. ^ a b c Jain, Madhu; Raval, Sheela (1998-12-21), "Ire over Fire", India Today,, retrieved 2008-03-14 
  3. ^ a b Bearak, Barry (1998-12-24), "A Lesbian Idyll, and the Movie Theaters Surrender", New York Times,, retrieved 2008-03-12 
  4. ^ "'Fire' referred back to censor board", The Times of India, 1998-12-05 
  5. ^ Unknown Author. "Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family" Agence France Presse, 14 December 1998. Accessed 14 March 2008.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Vanita, Ruth (2002) (Book). Queering India. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415929504. 
  7. ^ Unknown Author. "Candle-light protest against withdrawal of controversial film", BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 9 December 1998. Accessed 14 March 2008.
  8. ^ Unknown Author. "Sainiks spew venom against Dilip Kumar for backing Fire," Indian Express, 13 December 1998. Accessed 16 March 2008.
  9. ^ "Indian censors clear "Fire" for a second time", Reuters, 14 February 1999. Accessed 10 March 2008.
  10. ^ The Naz Foundation Trust, "History's Flirtation with Fire", 1 August 1999. Accessed 7 March 2008.
  11. ^ "That Burning Feeling", Times of India, 20 November 1998. Accessed 16 March 2008.
  12. ^ Mullick, Swapan. "Explosive Power of the Woman", The Statesman, 26 November 1998. Accessed 14 March 2008.
  13. ^ Somaaya, Bhawana. "Year of Unusuals", The Hindu, 27 November 2008. Accessed 13 March 2008.
  14. ^ Kidwai, Saleem. "Sena fury on Fire," The Independent'', 5 February 1999. Accessed 12 March 2008.
  15. ^ a b "Indian activists force cinema to call off 'Fire'", Reuters News, 18 December 1998. Accessed 11 March 2008.
  16. ^ Trehan, Madhu. "When we don't get what we want, we have to get violent", The Hindustan Times, 13 December 1998. Accessed 14 March 2008.
  17. ^ a b "Activists slam attacks on lesbian film, Hindus vow to widen protest," Agence France-Presse, 3 December 1998. Accessed 13 March 2008.
  18. ^ Ghosh, Shohini and Madhavi Shahani Kapur. "From the frying pan to the Fire, Fear of Fire, Communalism Combat, 1 January 1999. Accessed 11 March 2008.
  19. ^ "Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family", Agence France-Presse, 14 December 1998. Accessed 12 March 2008.
  20. ^ McGirk, Tim. "Plenty of Smoke Over Fire" Time Asia 21 December 1998. Accessed 13 March 2008.
  21. ^ Menon, Ritu. "The fire within", The Indian Express, 9 December 1998. Accessed 13 March 2008.
  22. ^ Upadhya, Carol. "Set This House on Fire", Economic and Political Weekly, 12 December 1998, 3176-77.
  23. ^ "Sena attacks theatres to douse Fire", The Indian Express, 3 December 1998. Accessed 10 March 2008.
  24. ^ Kishwar, Madhu. "Naive Outpourings of a Self-Hating Indian: Deepa Mehta’s Fire", Manushi, 1 January 1998. Accessed 15 March 2008.
  25. ^ Verma, Suparn. "An interview with Deepa Mehta", 24 October 1997. Accessed 10 March 2008.
  26. ^ Deshpande, Manisha. "In the line of fire" The Indian Express, 13 December 1998. Accessed 12 March 2008.

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