Furore over a film

Print edition : December 19, 1998

THE Shiv Sena's violent campaign to suppress Deepa Mehta's film Fire marks the latest episode in the Hindu right's ongoing cultural inquisition. That last fortnight's campaign of terror attacks on cinema halls ended not with the prosecution of those who launched them but with a decision to refer Fire back for censor scrutiny suggests that the campaign had the backing of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union Government. But the evident public disgust against the Shiv Sena's efforts to impose mob rule could mean that the campaign against Fire might end with the tiger losing at least some of its teeth.

As in the case of several Shiv Sena campaigns in the past against culture, the attacks on Fire had innocuous origins. On November 25, a fringe religious organisation, the Jain Samata Vahini, met Maharashtra Minister of State for Cultural Affairs Anil Deshmukh to protest against what it claimed were offensive elements in the movie. The Jain Vahini told Deshmukh that Fire denigrated the Ramayana and that scenes such as the one in which a servant watches a pornographic movie in the presence of an elderly woman offended "Indian tradition". Interestingly, the Minister's initial response was guarded: Deshmukh said that he would see the film, but made clear that he had no power to ban it. "I can only make a recommendation," he said.

For another one week, the Shiv Sena made no public comment on Fire. Attention remained focussed on the bitter feud between the Shiv Sena and the BJP over a planned India-Pakistan cricket match in Mumbai. But Shiv Sena boss Bal Thackeray's calls for a renewed Hindutva mobilisation in the wake of the BJP's debacle in the Assembly elections appears to have led his party cadres to discover in Fire the potential for political gains. Starring Rajya Sabha member Shabana Azmi - who as a Muslim and a centre-Left activist is one of the Shiv Sena's favourite ogres - and subversive of the patriarchal order which the Hindu right defends in the name of tradition, Fire had all the elements that the Shiv Sena needed to draw the attention of its constituency among conservative urban middle-class caste Hindus in Maharashtra.

Deepa Mehta (left), director of Fire, participates in a candlelight vigil outside Regal cinema in New Delhi on December 7.-JOHN McCONNICO / AP

The task of storming the cinema halls was executed, in true Shiv Sena style, by low-level functionaries and lumpens. Led by the Shiv Sena's Mahila Aghadi zonal-in-charge Meena Kambli, along with MLA Ravindra Mirlekar and vibhag pramukhs (area heads) Vinod Khopkar and Prakash Bhuvad, Shiv Sena workers vandalised the Cinemax theatre in suburban Goregaon and the New Empire in downtown Mumbai. The mob tore down posters and smashed showcases, forcing the suspension of screenings. Terrified theatre managements refunded tickets for subsequent shows. Although cases were filed against over a dozen rioters, eyewitnesses told Frontline that police personnel present at the venue stood by and watched the violence.

After the rioting, Meena Kambli succinctly outlined the Shiv Sena's motives for the attacks. "Films like Fire", she said, "have a bad influence on Hindu culture. The majority of women in our society do not even know about things like lesbianism. Why expose them to it?"Shabana Azmi was singled out for venomous attack, with several Aghadi workers criticising her for "exposing". Meena Kambli said that an eight-member delegation of the Mahila Aghadi had met Maharashtra Minister for Culture Pramod Navalkar the previous evening to demand a ban on the film. Their petition claimed that if "women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse" and "reproduction of human beings will stop."

The hysterical homophobia of the Mahila Aghadi soon found official endorsement. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi made his contempt for Indian law known by congratulating the Aghadi for its "courageous act". "Whatever is depicted in the film is against our culture," he continued, "and I am personally against such forms of art." "Culture is more important than glorification of art," Joshi said when asked if assaults on the freedom of expression were legitimate. Navalkar, for his part, was no more restrained. His principal target was Shabana Azmi, whose status as a Rajya Sabha member, he claimed, meant she "should not have enacted such a dirty role". Asked about representations of lesbianism in Indian tradition, notably in erotic temple sculpture, Navalkar suggested somewhat mystifyingly that "such things are not in the open". The fact that tens of thousands of tourists visit Khajuraho each year contradicts this claim did not interest the guardians of culture.

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in Fire.-


Subsequent events also clarified that reason was not among the Shiv Sena's strengths. During a Rajya Sabha debate on the issue that followed, Shiv Sena MP and one-time journalist Pritish Nandy attempted to defend his party from attack by arguing that it was for the people to decide whether or not to see the film. Even as he made this admirably liberal statement, Shiv Sena workers were storming the Regal cinema in New Delhi's Connaught Place. Again, despite the presence of a newly-elected Congress(I) regime, the police stood by and watched. Screenings at the upmarket PVR Anupam theatre in Delhi were suspended even without Shiv Sena attacks, with the management stopping one show mid-way as news of the attack on Regal came in. Cinemas in Pune also stopped screenings.

If the Shiv Sena's objective was to secure its credentials as a defender of religion and tradition, its campaign seems to have failed dismally. Ordinary movie-goers interviewed in Mumbai were sharply critical of the Shiv Sena action, which many in the city saw as part of the wave of organised crime and hooliganism that has undermined the party's legitimacy in recent months. More important, the film industry for once rallied behind the film. Shatrughan Sinha, actor-turned BJP MP, reportedly complained about the attacks to Union Home Minister L.K. Advani. A wide coalition of film personalities including director Mahesh Bhatt and actor Sunil Dutt, and civil rights activists such as Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, petitioned Chief Justice of India Justice A.S. Anand for action so that Fire can be screened.

But it will take more than court action to protect the freedom of expression from fascist attacks. The Congress(I)'s silence on the Fire issue, for one, has been more than a little disquieting. The party has in the past too maintained an ostrich-posture when confronted with similar issues, notably the campaign against artist M.F. Husain earlier this year. Interestingly, Fire is anything but radical. Indeed, its representation of lesbianism as an option forced by conjugal neglect reinforces in at least some senses mainstream prejudices. The Shiv Sena's central interest in the film is Shabana Azmi, whose role has been used to project insidiously messages of a Muslim plot to undermine supposed Hindu values. If mainstream political parties fail to challenge such messages fron-tally, the public anger that the Shiv Sena's action has provoked could well fail to lead to long-term gains for secularism.

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