Relighting the fire : visualizing the lesbian in contemporary India

Mahn, Churnjeet and Watt, Diane (2014) Relighting the fire : visualizing the lesbian in contemporary India. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 18 (3). pp. 223-236. ISSN 1540-3548 (

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This article revisits the controversy surrounding Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996), India's first publicly released film depicting female same-sex desire. The film has become a touchstone for discussions of the representation of queer and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lives in India. While the majority of critical accounts of the film have rejected the use of “lesbian” on the basis of its Anglo-American specificity, this article seeks to recast lesbians at the heart of Fire by filtering them through the lens of transnational protest, and by offering a close reading of the film's own play on religious and cultural symbolism. Viewed almost two decades after its release, in the light of the Delhi rape case of December 2012 and subsequent events, including the upholding of a law criminalizing gay sex in November 2013, the film now more than ever seems to offer a fantasy of the future, rather than a viable reality in the present day. Within Fire, the circumnavigation of heteronormative power and desire is certainly queer, but the film's labeling as “lesbian” subsequent to its release in India opened up an important public forum for a debate about female desire and independence that continues to resonate today. This article does not attempt to offer a conclusive argument about the use of the term “lesbian” to label the relationship between women that is depicted within the film, but it does examine the way in which the film itself visualizes desire between women, and in particular the use of Hindu narratives, imagery and motifs. The film's interpellation into lesbian politics is facilitated by the strong emphasis on a female-centered desire that is not defined by motherhood, that cannot be contained, and that demands to be seen.