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December 30, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

What is shame?

Even three weeks after it first ignited ire, Deepa Mehta's Fire continues to singe the Indian press with divergent views from all and sundry. Even Parliament found echoes of the bitter controversy during its just-concluded winter session which lasted for only 98 hours 52 minutes including the 21 hours lost because of interruptions for one reason or the other.

If this last statistic is an alarming indicator of the depths to which our elected representatives' priorities have sunk, the unending debate on Fire is an equally big blot on the art-inclined intellectuals who support it as well as on the rabid rabble-rousers who live in an antediluvian world --- both groups bereft of visionary leadership regarding what the ABC needs of the country are at this time.

Tellingly enough, not one of the several NGOs or social workers or economists or educationists has raised a voice to implore the people to forget the Fire of lesbianism and instead collectively help to douse the country's inferno of illiteracy, poverty, unemployment and maladministration.

The basic point of Fire which, unfortunately, has escaped realisation by both its proponents and opponents is that, in a pluralistic society like ours, a few points will be scored by either side but the end result would inevitably be a draw.

However, in this ongoing battle of point counterpoint, a few doubts do arise which disturb the dispassionate analyst. Here they are for the Rediff surfers to mull over and give their verdict on, if they choose.

*The storyline of Mehta's Fire is how the neglect by the husbands of two sisters-in-law in a middle class Hindu family leads the distraught women to have an emotional and physical relationship with each other and, ultimately, to their walking out in open defiance of the Indian patriarchal family system. The message herein, we are told, is that Indian women do, and can do, without the man as the "provider"-- another facet of women's lib, really.

Two issues arise here. Firstly, granting that lesbianism exists in our country, is it necessary to make a film that shows it, however artfully, to the highly impressionable and uneducated female population of millions, especially the adolescent and the teenaged ones in moffusil areas, towns and cities? After all, lesbianism is abnormal sex, isn't it? As Vimla Patil, former editor of India's first-ever women's magazine, said at a Bombay symposium the other day, it is double standards to allow depiction of lesbian relationship on celluloid while the same board of censors bans the "natural" scenes between a man and a woman.

Secondly, it does appear odd that at a time when women are already tending to assert themselves in metropolitan cities (evidenced by the increase in divorce rate and number of crucial executive positions held) and in the rural areas (evidenced by the way the women members are having their voice heard, albeit slowly), a film should come along showing a perverse direction in which women's life should move. Isn't education the crying need for enabling our women to stand on their own feet, to contribute to society, to build the nation? Shouldn't women therefore be urged by film-makers to crave for education, first and foremost?

*Mehta's Fire is but a take-off from Ismat Chughtai's short story Lihaaf(The Quilt) published 56 years ago. Lihaaf had come out a winner in the court even then against charges of obscenity. So why all the hue and cry now over the film?

The point here is that the frustrated wife in Lihaaf sought solace in the almond oil massages delivered under the quilt by an ugly housemaid, and Chughtai did not explicitly depict what happened under the quilt describing it as it appeared to her. After all, between showing a woman thoroughly happy after a night with a man in bed and showing the actual attainment of her orgasm, there is a vast difference, isn't there?

*Artistes of all hues -- painters, playwrights and film-makers -- have the right of freedom of expression and should not be curbed when they exercise that right.

Here again, two issues arise. While the right to freedom of expression is, in fact, a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution, it is by no means unlimited. There are in-built constitutional restrictions connected with impact on religious feelings, law and order etc. In this context, the names of the two women in Mehta's Fire do tend to taunt, if not hurt, Hindu sentiments. The name Radha is so closely linked with the sacred Krishna in the Hindu heart and mind that it is sacrilege to think even of attributing lascivious qualities of any kind to that appellation.

More crucial is the name of the other Fire woman, Sita. Shabana Azmi, one of the two women in the film, did proclaim in the Rajya Sabha that the name in the film was Neeta, not Sita. However, nobody has yet rebutted a Times of India news service report that "the original name Sita was changed to Neeta when the film was submitted to the censor board" and that "A source close to Deepa Mehta said it will cost about one crore (10 million) rupees to change the name in all the prints." Evidently, somebody is not telling the whole truth.

Secondly, what is the limit of this "artistic freedom of expression"? B N Uniyal's front page column in The Sunday Observer (from the Ambani stable) has it that (i) "London's Channel 4 is battling for its right to screen a documentary showing a man having sex with a mare because, it feels, such minority sexual practices should not be suppressed by a straight sex majority" and (ii) "the European Advertising Standards Alliance is petitioning the European Union to defend an ad firm's right to display a poster which shows a man being crucified in the background of a woman's vagina thinly covered by a bikini".

Must Indians be allowed to go in that direction under the garb of "multiculturism, value neutralism and anti-judgementalism"? It's all right in theory to say that the viewer must decide what's good for him/her, but who decides for the adolescents, for the teenager?

Dilip Kumar did nothing wrong in filing a petition, along with Javed Akhtar (Shabana's husband) and Mahesh Bhatt (the film-maker), in the Supreme Court pleading for unrestrained screening of Fire.

Yes, nothing wrong indeed, excepting that Dilip Kumar's action does not answer two questions: Why didn't Yusuf Khan (his real name) go to the Supreme Court similarly a few years ago when the Government of India banned Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses that reportedly hurt Muslim feelings? And why did Yusuf Khan not protest when, some weeks ago, members of some partisan organisations forcibly prevented the enactment on stage of Godse's defence of his assassination of Mahatma Gandhi?

Doubts and more doubts. You simply can't resolve them, and you can't simply banish them? This poor country of ours must live with them, must live with Fire -- at least as long as our elected representatives believe it is not indecent and immoral to snatch a proposed piece of legislation from the hands of a minister wanting to introduce it in Parliament.

All of this boils down to the question: "What is shame?" Nobody here wants to answer the question.

Arvind Lavakare

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