Ire over Fire
Even as the film is sent back to the Censor Board and the matter taken to court, the larger issue of state-sponsored hooliganism creates a furore.
By Madhu Jain with Sheela Raval
It started like a bush fire. So innocuous that nobody even noticed it at first. On November 25, some two dozen men belonging to the Jain Samata Vahini of Mumbai requested Maharashtra's Minister of State for Cultural Affairs Anil Deshmukh to ban Deepa Mehta's film Fire.
Jain Samata Vahini who? Nobody knows. End of story? No, it was only the prelude. The Shiv Sena obviously knew and grabbed the issue.
Forward to December 2, Cinemax theatre in suburban Goregaon in Mumbai. The matinee show of Fire was almost halfway through in a packed house when a group of rampaging women belonging to the Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi -- the women's wing of the Sena -- barged into the theatre. Accompanied by MLA R. Mirlekar, they smashed glass panes, burnt posters and shouted slogans. Soon after, the manager of the up-market New Empire in south Mumbai downed his shutters.
Next day it was Delhi. At 12.40 p.m., a handful of the Sena's female foot soldiers hit Regal cinema like a tornado, pulling down posters and breaking glass panes as if on cue. It was all over in 15 minutes. The TV camera crews were there but where was the police? As Fire producer Bobby Bedi says, "The Delhi Sena chief's letter informing the press about the demonstration said that they would do tod-phod and violence was expected ... almost as if tea will be served." After the attack on Regal, three other theatres stopped screening the film.The same day in Pune, Fire stopped unspooling. As it did in Surat after Bajrang Dal workers with lathis invaded the twin theatres, Rajpalace and Rajmahal, breaking up everything in sight and forcing the audience to flee.
It continued to spread like a bush fire -- until Calcutta, where the enraged audience and ushers shooed away the so-called guardians of public morality.
There obviously was a method in the madness -- a hooliganism that had state protection. On the eve of their attack on Cinemax, the Mahila Aghadi women called on state Culture Minister Pramod Navalkar to protest against the depiction of the "lesbian relationship" between Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in the film. They even demand Azmi's resignation from the Rajya Sabha.
While Navalkar obviously gave the green signal, Chief Minister Manohar Joshi egged them on, even patting them on their backs. "I congratulate them for what they have done. The film's theme is alien to our culture," said Joshi on the day the Sainiks attacked cinema halls and succeeded in stopping a film cleared by the Censor Board. Of course, Joshi backed down later saying he was only supporting their protest and not the vandalism.
The charge of the Sena brigade was, however, successful: Union Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting M.A. Naqvi sent Fire back to the Censor Board. Once approved, a film is rarely referred back to the censors, with exceptions like R.V. Pandit's Maachis because of its supposed soft treatment of terrorists. You need a "public outrage" for that, and the Sena obliged.
No matter that the "public outrage" was only some Sainiks and Bajrang Dal members flexing their muscles. "Does the Shiv Sena constitute public outrage?" asks an angry Mehta. "If a handful of people indulge in lawless behaviour, they don't constitute the public. Is the Censor Board saying it was wrong?" Navalkar, however, asserts, "The film has been banned, if not formally then informally."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence it was a call to arms to combat the "cultural Emergency" -- a term coined by film director Mahesh Bhatt. Led by thespian Dilip Kumar, Mehta, Bhatt and Javed Akhtar, playwright Vijay Tendulkar and a group of lawyers filed a public-interest petition in the Supreme Court on December 7 seeking a directive to restore "the rule of law and the Constitution before the situation slips into complete anarchy". The petition, which names Joshi and Sena chief Bal Thackeray among the respondents, also seeks the court's directive to the governments concerned to ensure the film is screened. The petition comes up for hearing on December 15.
With the issue before the apex court and the film back with the censors, an uneasy truce prevails as Fire has got people rallying on either side of the firing line. The irony is that most of those fighting over the film haven't even seen it. When Mehta spoke to some Sena women they told her that they had not seen the film but felt it was their duty to protest because it was against their culture. "When I asked them whether it wasn't against the law to do all the tod phod (indulge in hooliganism), one of them told me, 'We are the law'."
For people like Jai Bhagwan Goel, the Delhi Sena chief, the law is a minor issue. He is just happy that the furore over Fire has got him new recruits. The small-time businessman from Ludhiana believes that such acts of destruction at least gets them noticed.
For Dilip Kumar and others concerned about the growing culture of intolerance, the film and its contents is not really in question. "I haven't seen it. I know the cause," he says, adding, "We have to stop this kind of vandalism on our cultural life. Whether it is sports, painting, books, singing of songs or cinema."
All sorts of people have jumped on to the Fire bandwagon. During the candle light protest outside Regal cinema last week, there were 32 groups, but the placard-waving lesbians -- from organisations like Sakhi and Sangini -- stole the limelight. If anything, the broader issue of freedom of expression and tolerance had got derailed by the lesbian debate. As a surprised Mehta said, "I can't have my film hijacked by any one organisation. It is not about lesbianism. It's about loneliness, about choices."
More puzzling is the timing of the entire fracas. Mehta's Fire is over two years old and has already garnered 14 awards. The film was cleared by the Censor Board in May without any cuts and was first screened in India on November 13. During its two-three week run, there were hardly any protests or catcalls in the theatres -- the controversial scenes of the two actresses kissing was largely greeted with silence. Moreover, the cash registers were busy: about 80 per cent collection in most theatres, according to Sanjay Mehta, one of the distributors. The special show for women in Mumbai ran house-full and Fire had become a conversation piece in many middle-class homes.
Then what happened? According to the Mumbai grapevine, the Sena needed a distraction. Thackeray had made his ban on Pakistani cricketers a prestige issue. But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee last month said the Government would see to it that no organisation or individual is allowed to "obstruct" the Pakistani cricket team in India. "They wanted the public to forget the snub they got from the Government at the Centre," explains filmmaker Govind Nihalani.
And it's not just cricket. There may be trouble in the larger family and the Sena chief appears to be sulking. When asked why he should object to a film which was given an "Adult" viewing certificate by the Censor Board, Thackeray said, "Perhaps they might have taken due advantage of that great lady called Sushma Swaraj who was information and broadcasting minister then. Shabana and Sushma are good friends and the actress might have used her friendship to get the certificate." (see interview). The former i&b minister is not amused. "Yes, I am Shabana's friend. I have never met Mehta. Nor has Shabana or the Censor Board come to me regarding this matter," she said, adding, "I do not agree with the Sena's way of protesting. If you are not happy with the censor's approval of a film, you can go to the Appellate Tribunal."
Former bureaucrat and film buff Iqbal Masud sees the Sena's cultural policing as an act of desperation. "This is the usual tactic of the Sena chief who is failing politically. By creating a controversy over Fire he is trying to evoke Hindutva feeling which the BJP is abandoning. He also thinks it is an attack on Shabana who is a Muslim and a Marxist." The Sena's confrontationist ways first became evident in the early '70s with its protest against Tendulkar's seminal work Ghasiram Kotwal, which didn't suit traditional Maharashtrian views, and later with his Sakharam Binder. Says Tendulkar: "They have been doing it for the past 25 years. Intellectuals shout from the rooftop and nothing happens beyond that."
Once the Sena's violent demonstration worked, Thackeray began using it as a political tool to whip up passions. Only, over the years there's been a subtle change in the targets. Nihalani, who had to seek police protection when he made Tamas, his magnum opus on the Partition, says, "It was a religious or communal angle earlier, now it is culture, an intolerance to anybody who is modern or has a more liberal point of view."
The Sena obviously underestimated the public outcry over its moral policing. Realising that people's right to choose can't be dictated, it has begun to backtrack; already, Joshi has toned down his pronouncements, while the police has arrested the Delhi Sena chief.
Except for Delhi and Mumbai, Fire continues to run in cinema halls across the country. But fear has lodged itself in the creative imagination of its director. The Canada-based Mehta was headed for Varanasi to script Water, a film about widows and the last in the trilogy. "I was in mid-sentence, it was a scene about an eight-year-old widow getting her head shaved and I stopped. What's the point? It will never be passed. I can't write in this climate." It's this climate of insecurity that has set the alarm bells ringing.
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