Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 28, March 2012

Igniting Desires:
Politicising Queer Female Subjectivities in Fire

Senthorun Raj

    Fire is a much more dangerous film than one that simply sets up lesbians living in an elsewhere.
    Deepa Mehta

  1. What counts as intimacy? How do we locate sexuality? Who is the lesbian? These are some of the disparate, although related questions that surround representations of female homosociality and homoeroticism in diasporic and non-western cultural contexts. Representing a queer female subject position in Indian diasporic popular culture is fraught with epistemological and political challenges. As Gayatri Gopinath argues, either the queer woman is erased from a patriarchal nationalist rhetoric that refuses her existence or she is colonised by a liberalist Western discourse of sexuality that seeks to codify her subjectivity through indexes of 'gay' or 'lesbian'.[1] Responding to such discursive and political problematics of representation, my paper que(e)ries the dominant tropes of 'coming out', public visibility and consumption that are used to understand sexuality. Instead of attempting to fix queer desire, I argue that the synchronicity of gender, diaspora, sexuality, citizenship and domesticity foreground the plurality of queer female subjectivity. I use the term 'queer' to contest the ethnocentric implications of terms such as 'gay' and 'lesbian'. Framing the position of queer female desire in Deepa Mehta's film Fire ,[2] I argue that new modes of queer intimacy are enabled within domestic space, rather than their being alien to it. Viewing the private sphere as a site of production rather than repression, the protagonists Radha and Sita explore varied intimate attachments through platonic, filial and erotic terms, such as dancing, kissing and conversation that occurs in the home. Exploring this further, my paper connects ideas surrounding subaltern subjectivity with eroticism and agency to consider how South Asian female sexualities are negotiated within diasporic and domestic milieus.[3] In doing so, I focus on how alternative readings of queer intimacies in the domestic sphere can articulate new claims for recognition—dislodging the nationalist/patriarchal polemics and ethnocentric gay/lesbian ideologies that saturate the representation of the queer subject in Fire.

    Locating Fire
  2. Directed by diasporic Canadian-Indian filmmaker, Deepa Mehta, Fire traces the lives of a newly formed extended, middle-class, family living in New Delhi, India. In generic terms, the film relies on a typical Hindi aesthetic/narrative that is family-centric, focusing on joint families formed through marriage.[4] Two brothers, Ashok and Jatin, run a small fast food/video store, and are married to the female protagonists, Radha and Sita. Radha and Ashok have been married for over thirteen years and have no children. Jatin, the younger of the brothers, has only recently married Sita, while continuing to have an affair with his long-term, Chinese girlfriend Julie. Connected together by marriage, Radha and Sita, become embedded in a complex relationship that merges filial, erotic and platonic desires, as they challenge the heterosexual and gender norms that regulate domestic life. The intimacy between these characters gradually evolves, culminating when Ashok discovers them in a sexual encounter at home. Rather than renounce the intimacy they share, Radha and Sita both leave the home, finding solace in each other's arms at the end of the film.
  3. Fire is a complex film to define. The difficulty in thematising Fire lies in negotiating the complex transnational economies of sexuality, nationalism and gender that underpin the production context and the subject matter of the film. Rather than attempt to define Fire, I will attempt to contextualise it as a disparate cultural production. In order to do so, it is important to draw out one of the opening lines in the film: 'You just have to see without looking.' Radha's initial musing captures the discursive and political problematic that lies at the heart of the film: the representation and visibility of non-western queer female desire. What is interesting about such a statement is the seemingly innocuous distinction between 'seeing' and 'looking'. On one hand, Mehta's film contests the discursive polemic that queer desire involves a politics of visibility outside the home. Instead she traces the domestic and filial orientations of being a queer subject. Specifically, being queer no longer requires a public liberation. Rather, the home can be a space in which being queer becomes possible. Simultaneously, the line also conjures the political dilemma that frames the shifting public responses to the film: how do we represent or understand 'lesbian' subjects? Either a nationalist discourse claims the film is a corrupting influence on women by revealing 'lesbian' relationships, or an ethnocentric liberal 'West', claims the film as a melancholic tale of repressed lesbian desire that is unable to exist in an Indian public. Either way, the legibility of the film is reliant on the implicit undercurrent of a lesbian sexuality.
  4. Fire has been characterised by international media critics as a 'controversial' film. Much of the controversy is generated by the varied national, diasporic and transnational debates the film elicited during its vast global distribution. It is important to note that the film is a production that emerges from a constellation of disparate cinematic contexts: financed by Canada, India and South Asian diasporas.[5] Upon its release in India it was marked as an obscene diasporic production infiltrating a fragile Hindu cultural space. Many of the labels of 'perversion' or 'obscenity', which characterised the film's circulation in India, concentrated on how sex and sexuality were attached to the female protagonists, Radha and Sita. While sexual experiences are often spoken of in personalised terms, Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant argue that sex and sexuality are publicly mediated.[6] Conjugal heterosexuality, as Warner and Berlant argue, are the political referents used to police the porous boundaries between morality, sex and nationalism.[7] That is, sexualities outside the norm of heterosexual matrimonial intimacy, become risks or threats to social and political order. Thus, it is necessary to consider the film as a discursive rupture to what are commonly referred to as the 'culture wars' in India. Specifically, the 'culture wars' relate to the public debates in India where 'free speech' was/is counterposed to a religious communalist (and legislative) impetus towards greater censorship and regulation of the female body in order to 'protect' the vulnerable sensibilities of the nation.[8]
  5. Contemporary visions of the nation privilege the 'home' as the primary location for imagining 'Otherness' in racial, gendered, sexual and religious terms. As Benedict Anderson argues, the 'imagined community' is structured around particular fantasies of shared commonality.[9] Sexuality and culture are not static and become sites of negotiation, contestation and (re)production.[10] Bal Thackeray, Shiv Sena Party Leader in Bombay, asserted during the release of the film:

      Fire may have received 14 international awards but will anyone deliberate on the harm these people are doing by ushering in a wretched culture.[11]

  6. Representations of lesbianism in nationalist discourses are characterised as both ignorant and malicious. Thackeray's implication is that the film 'ushers in' a foreign threat of a 'wretched' homosexuality, a characterisation that relies on an essentialised Indian culture. This 'commonality', or more specifically, 'communalism' in India, is deployed in nationalist responses to Fire by delineating the sacred (always heterosexual) female body: a space of purity and tradition. As the Shiv Sena party, the major right-wing Hindu political party in India, noted, the depiction of 'lesbianism' was 'a direct attack on our Hindu culture and civilization'.[12]
  7. In response to these claims, Deepa Mehta has argued that: 'Lesbian relationships are part of the Indian heritage.'[13] Lesbianism, conversely, can also be framed as a part of Indian tradition. Resisting a hetero-patriarchal nationalist imaginary, Mehta evokes the historical narrative to legitimate representations of the lesbian subject.[14] While making oppositional claims, both Thackeray and Mehta's assertions rely on essentialist claims by attempting to fix the cultural specificity of the lesbian subject. Such a dichotomous approach to defining sexuality is not unusual in these debates. Either lesbian rights groups claim the narrative evokes a mythic homosexual past in India or patriarchal nationalist groups define homosexuality as a Western contaminant to an imagined authentic national culture.
  8. For audiences viewing the film outside the immediate context of Indian nationalism, Fire is marketed as a 'groundbreaking' cultural production that breaks sexual taboos. Such 'exceptionalist' characterisations of the film are evinced in the tendency of Canadian audiences to define the film as 'protofeminist' and 'pregay'.[15] Using a neo-colonial and teleological narrative, the representation of gender and sexuality in the film is read as either a progressive shift in cultural values, or conversely becomes indicative of India's ignorance to non-heterosexual identities. Such interpretations imply that 'Third World' cultural differences impede the visibility of sexual minorities. As Daniel Lak, a BBC Online news reviewer speculated at the time of the film's release:

      When the film Fire opens in Indian cinemas it will undoubtedly cause outrage, enlightenment and confusion … [passing the censors can be] taken as an indication that society remains ignorant or unaware of the sexual options before women.[16]

  9. Making causal connections between 'outrage', 'enlightenment' and 'confusion' are difficult. However, when contextualised with the latter comments, Lak produces India as a sexually inhibited, patriarchal space that offers women no capacity to imagine alternative sexual desires (presumably as lesbians). Such an orientalising gesture constructs India as a pre-modern or 'confused' society with no capacity to acknowledge the existence, or more accurately, the visibility of a 'lesbian' sexual identity. However, if queer desire is rendered visible, such recognition will either 'enlighten' a non-liberalist culture or it will create 'outrage' by offending the sensibilities of a sexually conservative nation. Ethnocentric gay or lesbian reading strategies, however, fail to acknowledge alternative queer desires and that the 'tradition' of censorship is historically rooted in the vestiges of British colonialism.[17]

    Que(e)rying gender, desire and agency
  10. Fire exemplifies how fantasies of the communal nation are sustained through the surveillance/regulation of female (hetero)sexuality. Women's bodies become the sites through which communal identities are formed. For example, the female body in Fire remains a repository of tradition and culture in order to maintain the authenticity of the home/family as the privileged unit of the nation. The constant allusions to the Ramayana in the film are indicative of this. The Ramayana, one of the foundational Vedic texts of Hinduism, narrates the demonic kidnapping of Rama's (Hindu deity) sacred consort, Sita. Rama, who eventually rescues his wife, is force to 'test' her purity, demanded by his people, to ensure she has been (sexually) 'untouched' by her captors. Sita, in the Ramayana narrative, literally walks through fire (agni pariksha) to prove her chastity to her husband Rama and his royal subjects.[18] By marking female, or more specifically spousal, citizenship in domestic terms, the appropriated figure of Sita in Fire becomes a metonym for a (religious) national identity rooted in mythologies of domesticity.
  11. Narratives of lesbian sexuality have also been attached as self-evident to the film's subject matter. However, as Geeta Patel reminds us, to identify the subject matter of the film as 'lesbian' is to place Radha and Sita's relationship within an Anglophone global economy of sexuality.[19] Mehta's film, however, does not rely on orientalist aesthetics that exoticise same-sex eroticism nor does it recuperate western epistemologies of the lesbian subject to represent queer female desire in an Indian domestic space. While queer diasporic texts utilise similar tropes of Euro-American texts such as coming out narratives, secrecy, nondisclosure, gender inversion and cross-dressing, they do so with different significations.
  12. Fire exposes a 'domesticised' (though distinctively non-repressive) queer sexuality between women. However, this sexuality is not reducible to a global lesbian movement nor does it necessarily gesture to public forms of same-sex relationship recognition (i.e. marriage). Rather, the film actively deconstructs notions of visibility, revelation and sexual subjectivity in order to challenge 'western' queer discourses that construct 'Third World' sexualities as repressed, anterior and in desperate need of 'liberation' through progressive Western queer politics.[20]
  13. However, in que(e)rying the 'colonised' voices of Radha and Sita in Fire, it is important to consider how queer female subjectivity resonates with the position of the 'subaltern' (as a colonised subject). The notion of the subaltern has been popularised in postcolonial studies by the work of Gayatri Spivak and is characterised by much theoretical debate. While Spivak acknowledges the complexity of defining the subaltern, she suggests that it refers to a class of individuals who lack a means of 'social mobility'.[21] Broadly speaking, this lack of 'social mobility' derives from particular historical and social conditions of colonial oppression. Spivak's work responds to the lack of critical attention to the colonised subject in humanities debates within the U.S Academy during the 1980s. By highlighting the political (and academic) invisibility of colonised subjects, the subaltern emerges as a figure 'deeply in shadow', positioned 'in between' spaces of culture.[22] That is, the subaltern as a female subject is positioned in a problematic 'double bind', between a space of patriarchal nationalism and colonising western discourses.
  14. Fire, however, contests the neat ascription of subaltern tropes to the female protagonists. In the cultural debates surrounding Fire, subaltern configurations are easily recognised in the nationalist construction of the female body—a body that must be tightly regulated to preserve cultural tradition and national values. Simultaneously, the lesbian subject emerges in the 'Third World' space as a perpetual victim, whose desires must be 'liberated' by western neoliberal ideas of democracy.[23] Dipesh Chakrabarty adds that subaltern histories 'have a split running through them' as they are conceived through a historical memory of 'violation' or 'shock' which has no space in the metanarratives of western historiographies.[24]
  15. Yet, exploring the complexities of subaltern narratives further, we must ask, is Fire reducible to a microcosmic narrative that concentrates simply on the emancipation of women? Brinda Bose argues that Fire primarily evokes female homoeroticism in order to define a 'feminist' (implicitly heterosexual) resistance to patriarchal constructions of female sexuality.[25] Such a reading comes to the fore when exploring the lack of intimacy between Ashok and Radha. Radha, who is unable to conceive a child, loses her desirability as a wife. If sex is framed in reproductive terms and marriage is sacrosanct: as the servant Mundu claims, 'once you are married, you are stuck together like glue'), then Radha's inability to have (male) children propels Ashok into an acetic existence and a life of celibacy. As Radha claims, 'he [Ashok] turned misfortune into an opportunity'. Displaced as a potential mother, Radha's body is, for Ashok, an object to test his own spiritual strength. He has Radha sleep naked next to him, and then refuses to touch her—a sign of his ability to transcend sexual desire. Radha's body becomes an object of exchange within this shifting narrative of patriarchal desire. While not physically violent, Radha's laments of marital life capture the discursive violence and emotional labour of losing her subjectivity. She becomes an object of Ashok's religious, rather than sexual, proclivities. Her desire and agency, as a female subject, are consistently undermined by Ashok's gaze. His gaze refuses Radha agency by constantly referring to her physicality. That is, Ashok objectifies Radha's spousal value solely in terms of her capacity to act as a sexual obstacle or spiritual test to his 'virtuous' existence, now that she is unable to conceive children.
  16. Correspondingly, Sita's husband, Jatin, continues his affair with his long-term Chinese girlfriend, Julie. Marriage for Jatin is about fulfilling familial obligations, rather than a desire for Sita. Intimacy between these characters becomes robotic and laboured. In their first sexual encounter, we see Sita, fully clothed silent on a bed, while Jatin gyrates quickly over her body. Within seconds, Jatin climaxes and falls asleep. Sita is consumed with anxiety after the apparent 'loss' of her bodily purity, as she inspects a trail of blood running down her thigh. Despite Jatin's assurances that it is 'normal' to bleed after the first sexual experience, Sita begins to rapidly clean the blood off the bed sheets, to erase the trace of her visceral sexuality. The marital bed, for both Radha and Sita, no longer signifies erotics or love, but isolation or abjection.[26] In order to resist the hetero-patriarchal construction of their bodies as marital commodities, Radha and Sita become intimate. In doing so, female same-sex desire, is said to then emerge from a failure of patriarchal heterosexuality.
  17. However, reading the pleasures and intimacies shared between Radha and Sita as conducive to an overwhelming dissatisfaction with a middle-class heterosexual lifestyle, obscures their erotic agency. These characters become desiring subjects, rather than desired objects. It is important to recognise that neither character seeks a relationship with a male character, as a way of satiating their sexual frustrations. Such a relationship is possible within the home, as Mundu, the male servant, frequents the domestic space that both Radha and Sita inhabit.
  18. So how then do we conceptualise the circulation of same-sex intimacy in the film? Does queer desire emerge only in response to stifling heterosexual traditions? Agency, as Meaghan Morris defines, is not about the passive inheritance of traditions, but rather, is the way cultural commodities are encountered and used in everyday practice to 'make' a culture.[27] We see such 'making' exemplified in Radha and Sita's first kiss. Radha, consoling a crying Sita, strokes her hair and mentions that things with Jatin 'will work out'. Sita instantly repudiates Jatin as the cause of her melancholia, and in a prolonged moment, embraces Radha with her lips. Her desire for Radha does not stem from her dissatisfaction with her relationship to Jatin. Instead, in a fleeting moment, Sita refigures her traditional relationship to Radha, and the two share an intimate embrace. Erotic intimacy between the characters is constantly re-negotiated by the protagonists of the film. Radha's erotic agency contests the rhetoric of victimisation, as Radha's desire culminates with an exclamation that she desires Sita's 'love, her compassion, her warmth and her body … [she has a] desire to live.' As Rujuta Chincholkar-Mandelia argues, Radha has been forced to renegotiate her (sexual) desires, as she is unable to reproduce children.[28]
  19. The expositions of female 'drag' highlight the expression of alternative sexualities. Sita often challenges her 'natural' femininity by expressing masculine traits such as cigarette smoking and wearing male attire at certain points in the film. Early in the film, when Radha gazes longingly at Sita dancing in trousers with a cigarette in hand, Sita is introduced as an object of (possibly erotic) fascination for Radha. Bose argues that the narrative of cross-dressing is structured around the repudiation of conjugal heterosexuality. That is, the role-play fantasies of masculinity are used in order to claim a 'new' heterosexual space.[29] However, such a reading can obscure the subtleties of domestic articulations of queer desire. Bose's argument relies on reading a dance sequence between Radha and Sita, where Sita is dressed in a suit, wearing a baseball cap, while Radha is dressed in a sari. The scene ends with 'too much electricity', as we literally see Sita 'go down' on Radha. While Sita is dressed in non-feminine clothing, her physical aesthetics and the exaggerated choreography in the scene are reminiscent of a twisted hyperbolic femininity, typical in Bollywood film. As Judith Butler argues, the coherent performativity of gender and heterosexuality is 'troubled' when masculinity is deployed by a female body.[30] That is, by denaturalising 'sex', we can observe how sex itself is a performative category that coheres through ritualised gendered expressions. In Fire, the causal relationship between having a female body and expressing a naturalised heterosexual femininity is destabilised when Sita chooses pants instead of a sari, Radha instead of Jatin. Thus, the fantasy or gender play, is more than a psychoanalytic attempt to recuperate heterosexuality, it is a space for articulating queer pleasures and gender masquerades through atypical Bollywood 'drag' performances.

    Que(e)rying the politics of domesticity
  20. Domestic space is often characterised in both feminist and queer theory as a site of containment–regulating gender and sexuality. Historically, women's bodies and social practices have been managed within the 'safety' of the home.[31] Moreover, in queer contexts, the 'home' is produced as a normalising space that erases the possibilities of queer desires and agencies.[32] Women become the repositories of heterosexual traditions. In the shift towards globalisation and international movements of people, currency and culture, such regulation of the female body has become intensified in order to protect fragile 'culture'.[33] Thus, the exclusion of women from the public sphere becomes all the more essential to guard against the corrupting influences of modernity.
  21. However, if women are denied mobility in the public sphere and are hence 'free' from the corruptions of modernity, then the emergence of queer female desire in domestic space troubles modernist/nationalist rhetoric that suggests a queer sexual identity is a product of western infiltration. Moreover, it undercuts western narratives of queer theory that rely on using 'counterpublics'[34], rather than the private/home space, as a way of conceptualising the production of resistant queer desires.
  22. Radha and Sita, as queer subjects, do not seek to immediately escape the 'home' as a repressive space. Rather, they rework notions of the 'home' within the interstices of 'queered' domestic spaces. That is, Radha and Sita seek to transform the essentialising and ahistorical logic of the 'home' that defines them.[35] In doing so, they challenge the assumption behind hegemonic forms of Indian nationalism that suggest that the queer subject is alien, inauthentic or outside the community. In Fire, erotic tension is often recuperated in family-centric scenes, such as the one where we see Radha, Sita, Jatin and Ashok engaged in a picnic. Queer pleasures emerge as we see Sita provide Radha with a sensual foot massage. Despite Radha's initial hesitation, as she retracts her foot, she succumbs to Sita's touch, and the two share an intimate moment, in front of their respective husbands. Despite the physical presence of Jatin and Ashok, the structuring male gaze is literally absent; Jatin is staring off into the distance, while Ashok is preoccupied with commending himself on his 'wonderful family'. The paradoxical trope of 'seeing' as opposed to 'looking' is evoked as Radha and Sita's eroticism is rendered visible, and yet remains invisible to some. Queer female desire, then, finds a space of articulation within the familiarity of the home space.
  23. Queer individuals also occupy fraught positions in relation to the proverbial 'closet'. Fire exemplifies the fracturing of the closet space, by ambivalently situating queer desires in relation to dissatisfaction with patriarchal heterosexuality. Michael Brown, in his work on epistemologies and geographies of the 'closet', notes that queer subjects are concealed or shamed into managing their visibility in radically different ways.[36] That is, heterosexist and homophobic discourses of family, sexual deviance and gender roles are used to normalise and marginalise queer identities. However, such normalisation is contingent. As Sita poetically exclaims, 'there is no word in our language that can describe what we, what we mean to each another'. Radha responds, 'perhaps seeing is less complicated'. Radha and Sita's relationship does not circumscribe to a queer politics that demands the visible lesbian identity and yet, in doing so, they are refused a public or national space to politically claim their desires. Queer female desire becomes a discursive and political rupture. Extending this further, Gopinath cautions against privileging visibility in representations of sexuality. Locating the 'proper' place of lesbianism through a politics of visibility in the public sphere obscures the particularity of female homoeroticism in non-western contexts.[37]
  24. Moreover, the closet does not feature as a fixed boundary of sexual identity in Fire. Gay and lesbian subjects are never truly 'in' or 'out' of the closet as it is a negotiated space where the subject manages whether they are identified as gay or lesbian.[38] Much of this argument is problematised in Ashok's discovery of Radha and Sita's sexual relationship. Queer desire only becomes problematic, once it filters into a patriarchal public, as Mundu states, 'it is not good for the family name'. When desire becomes intelligible within the fabric of public reputation, queer desire becomes destablising. However, queer desire also occupies a space of titillation and fantasy: Ashok reminisces over the caresses he witnesses Radha gives Sita. However, while Ashok condemns Radha for her 'unnatural' intimacy with Sita, at no time in the film is she referred to as a lesbian or homosexual. Even after she is displaced from the home, and her affair discovered, there is no necessity for her to claim a sexual identity by performing the confessional trope of 'coming out'.
  25. The demands for a fixed and public identity highlight that consumption is foundational, in neoliberal capitalist contexts, to the production of a sexual subjectivity. Dennis Altman argues that consumerism poses a 'new form of social control', positioning sexual identity into a coherent and discrete category that emerges from public consumption.[39] Fire exemplifies the connection between masculinity and consumption in public space, as the transnational influences pervading New Delhi enable the male protagonists, Ashok and Jatin, to pursue economic, sexual and spiritual ambitions outside the home. Jatin continues a liaison with a pseudo-American Chinese woman, while profiting from the sale of pornography. Correspondingly, Ashok, in pursuing a life of asceticism, frequently leaves the home to participate in spiritual rituals and scripture classes.
  26. In contradistinction to men, the position of women in Fire is in the home, recuperating the gendered Hindu expectations of womanliness as belonging in the home. However, Radha and Sita's erotic desires for one another unsettle the gendered heterosexual fabric that defines domesticity and family. After their first sexual encounter, Sita wonders: 'Radha, did we do anything wrong?'. While Radha dismisses the question in the negative, Ashok, when he discovers their illicit activity claims 'it is a sin against Man and God'. In the final scene of the film, we see Ashok push Radha into the stove, her sari catching on fire, because she refuses to seek forgiveness. The scene is cut by a fantasy sequence of a young Radha, playing in the fields, able to finally 'see' the ocean she had been searching for. Desire and childhood are enmeshed in this scene, capturing an innocence or purity to Radha's sexual choices. The film ends with Radha and Sita embracing one another, as Radha refuses the patriarchal bondage, living with Ashok, which demands her unquestioning servitude.

    Que(e)rying diasporic desires
  27. Mehta's diasporic commentary on domestic life in India is limited by her attempts to obscure the relationship between queer desire and lesbianism on one hand, and oppressive patriarchal values. In responding to some of the public debate, Mehta noted:

      I can't have my film hijacked by any one organisation. It is not about lesbianism. It's about loneliness, about choices.[40]

  28. Mehta expressly rejects 'lesbianism' as foundational to her work. Oddly, she frames the film in terms of 'choices' while connecting it to 'loneliness'. Echoing a similar sentiment to Bose, desire then becomes configured within a patriarchal space of marginalisation and victimisation, as evinced by the use of 'loneliness'. Commenting on these limitations, we can observes how queer female diasporic subjectivity itself is a constitutive absence in not just political but also academic accounts of sexuality, nationhood and diaspora.[41] For Mehta, the queer diasporic organisations function as limits, 'hijacking' the film for a political agenda that she does not share. Queer remains a notable absence in (heterosexual) feminist (or as Mehta prefers the label 'humanitarian') articulations of diaspora. Such rhetoric reinforces the splits between feminism, nationhood and queer and invisibilises the subject/viewing position of queer diasporic individuals living outside the homeland engaging with the film.[42]
  29. Queer diasporic subjectivity foregrounds the incongruities between nationalism and globalisation when approached with an analytic focus on race, gender and sexuality.[43] Anita Mannur and Jana Braziel define diaspora as the historically and culturally specific dispersals and movements of populations from one national or geographic location to other disparate sites.[44] According to Vijay Mishra, the concept of diaspora comes to occupy a space of theoretical contestation. The diasporic imaginary, the way diasporic subjects imagine the homeland, he argues, is framed within an 'episteme of real or imagined displacements'.[45] His analysis implies that the diasporic body is precariously positioned and moves 'between' various cultural and social locations. Arjun Appadurai elaborates that such disjunctive movements have become synchronic with the transnational influences of global capital.[46] Synthesising these positions, queer diasporic subjectivity articulates a complex relationship between desire, nostalgia and the 'home'.
  30. Extending the analysis offered by Gopinath, Appadurai and Mishra, it becomes problematic to use diasporas to construct the notion of a temporally fixed or stable 'authentic' home or nation. Stuart Hall notes that diasporas do not simply locate their home as a moment of the past, but rather diasporic attachment becomes a constitutive element in defining identity, often by contesting the stability or authenticity of the home.[47] Fire facilitates such contestation, as Debanuj Dasgupta from the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) in the United States claimed:

      Fire is about these two women, housewives, who are exploring their choices in life, especially with regards to sexuality. As a result of the violence, and attempts to ban the movie, lesbian activists began to organize a group called Campaign for Lesbian Rights, also addressing freedom of expression.[48]

  31. Dasgupta does not attempt to claim an 'authentic' lesbian history to India. Reframing the debate in terms of 'expression' and 'choice', Dasgupta makes a diasporic claim for the political organisation of sexual minorities. While the diasporic body is generally perceived as inauthentic or an 'impoverished imitation of an originary culture', Dasgupta does not accept the existence of 'true' Indian culture.[49] Such activism illustrates the theoretical emphasis that Mishra, Hall and Gopinath share in refusing to use a static notion of 'home' (or nation) in order to embrace more temporally and spatially shifting accounts of cultural difference and queer desire.
  32. For queer diasporas reading the film, however, there are unique slippages between sexuality, nationalism and the home space. To help clarify these particularities, I find it useful to borrow Gopinath's reading strategy of 'retrospectatorship'. For Gopinath, this term represents the ways in which, queer subjects reconstruct their relationship to the 'home' by identifying the 'home' as a source of queer desire, from a present position of dislocation.[50] Alongside Gopinath, Ien Ang argues that such a strategy maintains a 'creative tension' in diasporic politics that neither privileges the 'homeland' or the 'host' nation.[51] For instance, the coalitional alliances forged between queer diasporic (SALGA) and national LGBT rights groups (Campaign for Lesbian Rights, based in New Delhi) as a result of Fire's transnational distribution, evinces the activist potential of 'retrospectatorship' as a textual strategy. For example, the circulation of Fire in US and Indian contexts revitalised policy debates surrounding the criminalisation of homosexuality, under sodomy laws in the Penal Code, another inheritance from British colonialism.[52] Naming and visibility, despite Fire's contestation of such representational strategies, become central to challenging the violent nationalist rhetoric of the Hindu Right, which punishes non-heteronormative sexualities. These distinctive forms of homophobia, rather than homosexuality, are what remain historically located as western 'imports'. Questions of authenticity and the home/host binary are displaced in the productive alliances between diasporic and non-diasporic LGBT groups. Locating Fire within these transnational flows of grassroots activism, rather than confining it to the political sphere, contests both the orientalising liberal humanist ideas of modernity as well as the essentialising nationalist imaginings of sexual identity in public terms.
  33. Queer diasporic reimagining of nationhood, within the space of domesticity, is crucial to the negotiation of identity. Global capitalism and the circulation of cultural products through disparate media networks, produces a 'fragile' concept of nationhood—one that is constantly 'reimagined' across geographical state boundaries.[53] As Appadurai suggests, part of this 'reimagination' is due in part to competing economic and political interests: a desire for economic mobility in the global market weighed with an increasing political need to police borders and maintain national integrity.[54]
  34. 'We can find choices'. One of Sita's final lines towards the end of the film gestures to how love is negotiated as a sociopolitical platform to articulate the position of sexual minorities in India.[55] What the film's reception in the West exemplifies, is the existence of a 'homonationalist' imaginary, one which produces non-western states as sexually repressive or anterior.[56] That is, in a neo-orientalising gesture, Euro-American imaginaries on sexuality emerge by scripting the 'West' as sexually tolerant, while expressly repudiating the inherent homophobia of 'Other' (read: non-western) states. The film echoes this homonationalist ambivalence. In the final scenes, Radha and Sita must leave the home in order to live with their 'choices'. While forms of legal same-sex relationship recognition are not expressly politicised in the film, both Radha and Sita attempt to negotiate a way for their intimacy to coexist within the national space. This is exemplified in the closing scene, where the two embrace near a Sufi Temple (non-Hindu), their futures uncertain. While uncertainty marks the position of the queer female subject, who is dislocated from the home, such dislocation does not emerge through repression in the home, but is marked by the demand for Radha and Sita's sexuality to occupy public space.

  35. Fire problematises the way sexuality, gender and culture are primarily located in national and public spaces. The film evinces that any attempt to dislocate queer desire or sexual identity from the domestic space is problematic. Rather than attempt to provide a representational aesthetic for lesbianism, the film locates queer female desire as a concatenation of domesticity, privacy, filial duty, friendship and eroticism. In doing so, the film dislodges a nationalist politic that refuses to imagine the existence of public queer subjects, while refusing the neo-Orientalist claims of the 'West', that the Third World private sphere is a site of ongoing repression. Despite contesting the notion of visibility and authenticity, the film has a political and activist impetus. Denouncing essentialist logics, and producing queer diasporic alliances, Fire presents the complexity of queer female subjectivity in terms of the home. The recognition of queer intimacies is not reducible to the public sphere or seeking 'liberation' necessarily. Rather, by transforming our conception of desire in the domestic sphere we can enable a queer politics that provides us with different 'choices' with which to live.


    [1] Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005.

    [2]Fire, directed by Deepa Mehta, Trial by Fire Films Inc., 1996.

    [3] Intimacy, queer, homosexuality, homoeroticism and homosociality are terms with different historical and theoretical connotations. While it is beyond the scope of the paper to detail these histories, intimacy is used as an umbrella term to encompass varied platonic, romantic, erotic and filial attachments between individuals in the film. The term queer is used to reflect sexual identities that resist reproductive or matrimonial imaginaries of heterosexuality. Homosexuality refers to the politicised sexual identity ascribed individuals who are solely attracted to others of the same-sex. Differentiating this further, homoeroticism refers to erotic or romantic practices between individuals of the same-sex that are not reducible to a particular sexual or political identity. While homosociality, on the other hand, refers to the social significance of platonic relationships between two members of the same-sex. For further discussion, see Gopinath, Impossible Desires, pp. 10–18.

    [4] Ulka Anjaria and Jonathan Shapiro-Anjaria, 'Text, genre and society: Hindi youth films and postcolonial desire,' in South Asian Popular Culture, vol. 6, no.2 (2008): 125–140, p. 126.

    [5] Jigna Desai, 'Homo on the range: mobile and global sexualities,' in Social Text 73, vol. 20, no. 4 (2002): 65–89, p. 67.

    [6] Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, 'Sex in public,' in Intimacy , ed. Lauren Berlant, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 311–30, p. 547.

    [7] Berlant and Warner, 'Sex in public,' p. 548.

    [8] Ratna Kapur, Erotic Justice: Law and the New Politics of Postcolonialism, London: Glass House Press, 2005, p. 71.

    [9] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflection on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1993, p. 3.

    [10] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 16.

    [11] 'Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family,' Associated Foreign Press, 14 December 1998, online:, accessed 1 September 2010.

    [12] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 157.

    [13] 'Hindu leader says lesbian film should be about Moslem family.'

    [14] Kapur, Erotic Justice, p. 57.

    [15] Desai, 'Homo on the range,' p. 68.

    [16] Daniel Lak, 'South Asia lesbian film sets India on fire,' in BBC Online, 13 November 1998, online,, accessed 18 August 2010.

    [17] Desai, 'Homo on the range,' p. 69.

    [18] Geeta Patel, 'Trial by fire: a local/global view,' in Gay Community News, vol. 24, no. 2 (1998): 10–17, p. 11.

    [19] Patel, 'Trial by fire,' p. 15.

    [20] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 12.

    [21] Gayatri Spivak, 'Can the subaltern speak?,' in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 28–37, p. 28.

    [22] Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London and New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. 2–4 ; Spivak, 'Can the subaltern speak,' p. 32.

    [23] Spivak, 'Can the subaltern speak,' p. 29.

    [24] Dipesh Chakrabarty, as quoted in Sumathi Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891–1970, Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997, p. 3.

    [25] Brinda Bose, 'The desiring subject: female pleasures and feminist resistance in Deepa Mehta's Fire,' in Indian Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 7, no. 2 (2000): 249–262, p. 250.

    [26] Bose, 'The desiring subject,' p. 252.

    [27] Meaghan Morris, 'Cultural studies,' in Beyond the Disciplines: The New Humanities, ed. K.K. Ruthven, Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1992, pp. 1–21, p. 10.

    [28] Rujuta Chincholkar-Mandelia, 'Fire: a subaltern existence?,' in Journal of Third World Studies, vol. 22, no. 1 (2005): 197–209, p. 201.

    [29] Bose, 'The desiring subject,' p. 255.

    [30] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, London and New York: Routledge, 1990, p. 34.

    [31] Patel, 'Trial by fire,' p. 10.

    [32] Berlant and Warner, 'Sex in public,' pp. 549–51.

    [33] Arjun Appadurai, 'Disjuncture and difference in the global economy,' in Theorising Diaspora: A Reader, ed. Jana Braziel and Anita Mannur, Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp. 25–48, p. 42.

    [34] Berlant and Warner define 'counterpublics' as spaces that sexualise and experiment with non-heterosexual intimate relations that are not reducible to domesticity, reproduction or the nation. These practices produce intense and differentiated personal affects that are not easily organised within a simple trajectory of romance or conjugal intimacy. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, 'Sex in Public', in Intimacy, ed. Lauren Berlant, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 311–30.

    [35] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 14.

    [36] Michael Brown, Closet Space: Geographies of Metaphor from the Body to the Globe, London and New York: Routledge, 2000, pp. 1–3.

    [37] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 140.

    [38] Gail Mason, The Spectacle of Violence: Homophobia, Gender and Knowledge, London and New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 95.

    [39] Dennis Altman, as cited in Rob Cover, 'Queer with class: absence of Third World sweatshop in lesbian/gay discourse and a rearticulation of materialist queer theory,' in Linked Histories: Postcolonial Studies in a Globalized World, ed. Pamela McCallum and Wendy Faith, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005, pp. 45–63, p. 51.

    [40] Deepa Metha, quoted in Madhu Jain with Sheela A. Raval, 'Ire over fire,' in India Today, New Delhi, 21 December 1998, online:, accessed 13 October 2010.

    [41] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 6.

    [42] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 6.

    [43] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 10.

    [44] Jana Braziel and Anita Mannur, in Theorising Diaspora: A Reader, ed. Jana Braziel and Anita Mannur, Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp. 1–22, p. 3.

    [45] Vijay Mishra, The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary, New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 1.

    [46] Appadurai, 'Disjuncture and difference in the global economy,' p. 29.

    [47] Gayatri Gopinath, 'Nostalgia, desire and diaspora: South Asian sexualities in motion,' in Theorising Diaspora: A Reader, ed. Jana Braziel and Anita Mannur, Cornwall: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp. 261–79. p. 263.

    [48] Debanuj Dasgupta, 'Gay in Hindu India,' in The Gully, 12 April 2002, online,, accessed 13 October 2010.

    [49] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 7.

    [50] Gopinath, Impossible Desires, p. 97.

    [51] Ien Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West, London: Routledge, 2001, p. 35.

    [52] According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), same-sex male and same-sex female relationships are both deemed to be illegal. Section 377 of the Penal (Criminal) Code provides: 'Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may be extended to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.' This provision was read down by the High Court in 2009 to effectively decriminalise consensual same-sex sexual activity. U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2006, released 15 September 2006, online,, accessed 18 April 2010.

    [53] Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese, p. 25 and Appadurai, 'Disjuncture and difference in the global economy,' p. 38.

    [54] Appadurai, 'Disjuncture and difference in the global economy,' p. 38.

    [55]Alexandra Lynn Barron, 'Fire's queer anti-communalism,' in Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 8, no. 2. (2008): 64–93, p. 67.

    [56] Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, USA: Duke University Press, 2007, p. 3.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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