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ASIA
DECEMBER 21, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 24


Director Deepa Mehta. ROBERT NICKELSBERG FOR TIME


Plenty of Smoke Over Fire
A highly acclaimed, ground-breaking film ignites passions both on-screen and off
By TIM McGIRK New Delhi

Hindu leader Bal Thackeray likes to think of himself as India's cultural emperor, but many Indians regard him as king of the killjoys. Ever since his militant Shiv Sena party won control over Bombay and the surrounding state of Maharashtra in 1995, Thackeray's mobs of morality enforcers have been hard at work. Along with other Hindu militants, they have censored plays, bullied painters and threatened to bust up concerts by Muslim musicians from Pakistan.

In a raging dispute over a new film, however, the emperor may have pushed too far. On Dec. 2, Shiv Sena women stormed theaters showing Fire, a sensitive portrayal of two sisters-in-law trapped in loveless marriages who find solace in a lesbian relationship. Maharashtra's Chief Minister Manohar Joshi condoned the mob attacks in Bombay. Soon after, thugs smashed up a New Delhi theater where Fire was playing to a packed audience. Panicked distributors halted screenings of the movie in New Delhi, Ahmedabad and Pune--all cities where Shiv Sena or other Hindu militant groups can summon up local toughs--even though the film, made by Canada-based Indian director Deepa Mehta, had won 14 international awards and shown in 32 countries without a murmur of protest. Instead of posting police around the theaters, the federal government sent Fire back to the censors for review.

While the Shiv Sena portrayed the film as a salacious romp, many Indian film-goers found it poignant. Says director Mehta: "A lot of my film is about loneliness, about women finding their voices." These themes found an echo in many households, and before long those who had rushed to the theaters hoping for pornographic thrills gave way to women viewers, often mothers and daughters, eager to see a candid exploration of the fractures that can divide a traditional extended family.

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