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January 11, 1999


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The problem with Fire

Rajeev Srinivasan

A still from Fire
The debate over Fire is one of those wretched controversies that lends itself to shades of grey. I am in a dilemma. As a writer, I cannot condone any acts of censorship, because it devalues the basic urge for self-expression that drives the act of writing. However, it is also true that the writer or artist has an obligation to behave responsibly. The principals of Fire have failed to do so.

In fact, there is reason to believe they behaved irresponsibly, with malice aforethought, and then lied about it.

It is true that the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech; however, it does not -- and cannot -- guarantee the right to hateful speech. Because, by definition, the latter infringes on other freedoms also guaranteed in the Constitution. The US faces the same concern, because the First Amendment to the US Constitution is about free speech; but over the last few years, hate speech has been controversial in the domain of discourse there.

It is an axiom that every right brings with it certain responsibilities: one without the other leads to anarchy or totalitarianism. There was an interesting suggestion by Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, psychologist and writer of the famous Man's Search for Meaning -- wherein, to digress for an instant, he portrays how the possession of some supra-ordinate goal, good or bad, enabled individuals to survive the worst of times. This must apply, of course, to nations too.

Anyway, Frankl's suggestion was that there should be a 'Statue of Responsibility' placed in San Francisco Bay to balance the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour: the symmetry would be highly symbolic. I would like to suggest that instead of the US, it is India and her populace, especially the so-called intellectuals and leaders, who need such a vivid reminder of their duty to the nation. We should build a Statue of Responsibility in Bombay's Backbay.

Exercising one's right to free speech without considering the consequences is an open invitation to anarchy. We all, theoretically, have the right to shout Fire! in a crowded theatre and cause panic, stampedes, and deaths. But, as responsible individuals, we don't do it. We have the right to publish child pornography. We don't do it. We have the right to show "snuff" movies, wherein the actors, usually prostitutes, are actually murdered in the act of sex. But we don't.

We are entirely within our rights to publish detailed plans for suitcase-sized nuclear bombs on the Web. But we don't. This is responsibility. In America, freedom of expression provides anyone the right to walk up to a black man and call him "nigger". They should also be prepared for the consequences. You might consider this self-censorship, but this is the result of living in a society consisting of many individuals, each with their own interests.

I submit that the makers of Fire were irresponsible. It is not the content of the film that I have any particular objection to. My rule of thumb is that what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own homes, without hurting anyone else, is their own business. I am tolerant to "alternative lifestyles"; living in San Francisco taught me that. Whether lesbianism was depicted in ancient Indian murals is immaterial, in my opinion.

The film, in cinematic terms, is rather good -- well-photographed, with a superb performance by Shabana Azmi. The theme of patriarchal domination of women comes across well, too -- no wonder it has garnered several global awards. The oppression of woman is a problem worldwide, and certainly in India too.

What concerns me is what appears to be malice aforethought and speech intended deliberately to provoke. This has to do with the choice of the names Radha and Sita for the two female characters. These are names with scriptural meaning to Hindus; they are evocative names with religious significance. Why didn't they use neutral names like Malati and Chandrika, for example?

To be charitable, let us assume that Deepa Mehta, the director, having lived in Canada for 25 years, did not quite fathom the effect on Hindus. But surely, Shabana Azmi, member of Parliament and social activist, could have suggested to Mehta that a little discretion was the better part of valour?

The deliberate choice of these names suggests a hidden agenda -- that of provoking a certain set of Hindus. For perspective, let us consider how such a concept might have been received if the intended target were Christians. Let's take two significant Christian female names -- but then there really is only one significant woman in Christian myth -- Mary, mother of Jesus.

Therefore let us consider a film with two male leads, set in San Francisco. Let's say these are two straight men named Jesus and Paul (Jesus is not an unusual name for Mexican-Americans) who are brothers-in-law. But they are womanless. Jesus's wife refuses him sex: she is celibate under the influence of a Christian cult (say Pat Robertson's); Paul's wife cheats on him with her old boyfriend, whom she won't give up. Frustrated, Jesus and Paul have a gay affair.

Exactly how would this be received by Christians in the US? I suspect not with open arms. Some set of Christians would be very upset indeed. I remember the uproar when a man created an alleged objet d'art named "Piss Christ" which consisted of an upside-down crucifix in a jarful of urine.

Therefore, the casual observer could expect that certain Hindus (after all, the Hindutva crowd are as close to Semitic perspectives as it gets) would be upset by the choice of names. In fact, it is clear that Deepa Mehta did realise this: she went to considerable expense to change the name from "Sita" to "Nita" for Indian editions of the film.

This fact is crucial. When Fire was released in North America in 1996, there was debate amongst the cognoscenti as to why the name "Sita" was chosen -- the conclusion was that it had something to do with the mythological Sita's trial by fire (the production company is called Trial by Fire, too). Perhaps. Yet Mehta changed it to "Nita" for Indian audiences.

Therefore, Mehta wanted to provoke a little, but not too much? Obviously, she knew that "Sita" would provoke, so it stands to reason she knew "Radha" would provoke as well. So why did she choose these names in the first place?

She knew this act of naming was the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a bull, inciting protest. If she did this deliberately, then she should be woman enough to accept the consequences.

I am forced to conclude that Deepa Mehta actually hoped to induce protest. For what purpose, I can only conjecture: perhaps to demonstrate that (all) Hindus are intolerant; perhaps to indulge angry feminist perspectives; perhaps to thumb her nose at votaries of Hindutva; or maybe, it was purely out of commercial and marketing considerations.

After all, Fire has received an enormous amount of free publicity, the kind that money can't buy. Everybody in India has heard of Fire. Oceans of ink have been expended on analysing the film from every possible perspective. Therefore, it has been in the public eye far more than it would have if the names were indeed Malati and Chandrika. The chattering classes have thundered about bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

And the film-makers did more, too. They lied, publicly. Shabana Azmi wrote an impassioned defence of the film in The Times of India. Absolutely fair. She has every right to defend herself and the film. She said, and I quote: "The name is not Seeta but Neeta in both the Hindi and English versions of Fire." End of statement. What she omitted to say is very significant -- she should have added: "Only in the Indian editions." A sin of omission, implying deliberate deception.

A quick search of the Web will bring up wherein you can confirm that the original 1996 worldwide release did use the name "Sita". Zeitgeist is the distributor, so this is the official web site for the film.

Why is Azmi uttering half-truths? Because she can get away with it? It smells like a sordid and bungled conspiracy -- provocation, lies, and cover-up -- positively Nixonian. Miladies Azmi and Mehta do protest too much. It is not becoming of them as artists. In particular, it is unfortunate that Azmi should stoop so low. For, as an artist, she is luminous -- I recently saw Ankur again, and after all these years, it is still superlative.

When artists are, at best, irresponsible, possibly hypocritical, and, at worst, agents provocateurs it is hard for the casual observer, even one who condemns censorship, to support them unequivocally. Hence my dilemma about Fire.

'What's wrong with my film?'

Rajeev Srinivasan

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