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Friday, November 13, 1998 Published at 00:47 GMT

World: South Asia

Lesbian film sets India on Fire

Challenging taboos: A scene from Fire

By South Asia Correspondent Daniel Lak

When the film Fire opens in Indian cinemas it will undoubtedly cause outrage, enlightenment and confusion.

Fire has already been shown in many other countries, but the Indian censor board wanted to give it a thorough examination.

Daniel Lak asks if India is ready for Fire
It passed, and this powerful story of two sisters-in-law who fall in love, is being shown uncut in English and India's national language, Hindi.

When the film was shown last year at two Indian film festivals, there were strong reactions, including negative ones from the influential social conservatives in India.

But one group of people in the country is awaiting this film eagerly - the Indian lesbian community, which for years has maintained a silent, almost secret existence.

Breaking new ground

The film's protagonists are sisters-in-law, trapped in emotionally bleak marriages, who turn to each other for comfort, love and eventually, sex.

[ image: Deepa Mehta:
Deepa Mehta: "It has caused outrage, love and confusion"
Despite its vast output and long history, Indian cinema has rarely ventured into such a realm.

Fire is not meant to be about gay life, but after world-wide release, as it makes its debut in India, it is sure to be provocative and challenging.

Director Deepa Mehta aims to be provocative and challenging: "Some people are outraged by it, some people love it and some people are confused by it. I think it's not going to be any different in India - at least I hope not."

Many of India's gay women are glad that Fire is showing in their country.

The couple I spoke to, on condition they remain anonymous, have been together for more than six years.

They make no secret of their relationship, but neither do they openly proclaim their sexuality.

[ image: A lesbian character in the film is allowed to burn by her shamed husband]
A lesbian character in the film is allowed to burn by her shamed husband
India, they say, has yet to come to terms with the very existence of female homosexuality. Finding a stable partner can be tough when society doesn't even acknowledge that women can be attracted to women.

One said: "We live in the same neighbourhood - so I've known her over the years. We belong to the same group of friends. She had been away in Africa and I heard about her relationship there. Much later when I went up to her we became friends - and one day it just happened - it just took over."

Acceptance not easy to find

Now, they live together and have a wide circle of friends, some gay, most not. And they are beginning to find the confidence that is necessary to assert themselves and their identity. Some changes are tough though.

"With our families we could not interact with each other as a normal couple. That did bother us. It was not a proper kind of acceptance - it was more like 'yes, you're doing it - but we don't recognise it - yet we're not saying anything bad about it,'" one said.

The public in India is getting its first challenge from the painted billboards and hoardings up in major cities to advertise the film Fire.

Their vivid depictions of scenes from the movie are in keeping with the Indian cinema tradition of promising more in the advertising than is delivered in the film - more sex, violence or titillation.

The fact that Fire passed the tough Indian censorship process without a single cut could be seen as recognition that this is a serious film that has chosen its scenes and story line carefully.

Or it could be taken as an indication that society remains ignorant or unaware of the sexual options before women.

Breaking through ignorance

Telephone counselling is now available in major cities, like Delhi.

Until a helpline was set up, there was literally nobody for women to talk to. Cath Slugget, of the Sangini support group, says those who call are often confused and unaware.

So Indian cinema-goers will be seeing a film that challenges taboos, and has some vivid portrayals of passion and violence.

But Fire also makes it clear that overturning tradition can be dangerous. whatever comfort gay women might take from a sympathetic story line Fire is not a film that is likely to leave anyone here indifferent.

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