Same-sex love is at the heart of the February 1 release Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga – a rarity in Hindi cinema, which has rarely made room for LGBTQ characters and narratives. The Sonam Kapoor-starrer owes a great deal to the trailblazing Fire, made by Deepa Mehta in 1996 and starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das as Radha and Sita, sisters-in-law who fall in love. Fire was released in India in 1998, and was one of the first Indian films to “bring women in love out of the margins and into the mainstream”, writes Shohini Ghosh in Fire: A Queer Film Classic.

The love story of Radha and Sita

Fire opens with a gentle exhortation to ‘see what you can’t see’ and to ‘see without looking.’ The mustard field sequences are both a memory and a dreamscape that shapes Radha’s selfhood, her relationship with Sita, and perhaps even her destiny. It is a reminder ‘of wide open spaces, of the sea beyond the limits of the land, of the need to see without looking’. In addition to the literal references to seeing, Fire can be read as a parable on looking and an allegory about spectatorship.

Let’s return to the picnic sequence where the irony of Sita massaging Radha’s feet is evident to the audience but not to the husbands. While one husband encourages his wife to go right ahead with the massage, the other congratulates himself on having such a ‘good’ family. The brothers could well be the spectators whose heteronormatively circumscribed imagination renders invisible all signs of queer desire, even when plainly visible. This inability to ‘see’ while looking may be why non-queer spectators often ask their queer counterparts, ‘But aren’t you reading “too much” into text?’

Fire (1998).

With few exception, representations of female bonding, unlike make bonding, were largely absent from popular Indian cinema until the turn of the twenty-first century. Female homoeroticism appeared fleetingly in films such as Razia Sultan (Queen Razia, Kamal Amrohi, 1983), Humjoli (Beloved Friend, Ramanna, 1970), and Yeh Aag Kab Bujhegi (When Will This Fire Be Doused? Sunil Dutt, 1997), as well as more self-consciously in Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (Marketplace, 1983), but rarely was it central to the male-dominated narratives of popular cinema. Barring films that privileged the heroine, as in the genre of courtesan films, women never enjoyed the narrative centrality that male protagonists did. It was only in the 1990s that this began to change.

Fire qualifies as a queer classic because it is the first Indian film to bring women in love out of the margins and into the mainstream and to provide a body to the shadow-like subliminal lesbian of film narratives in India. But more importantly, Fire inaugurates a new interpretive strategy by explicitly crossing the line between female homosociality and female homosexuality. Routine homosocial activities such as cooking, hanging clothes to dry, or oiling each other’s hair become invested with sexual and erotic energy. Such activities are no longer what they appear to be.

Gayatri Gopinath has noted how the film produces a complicated relay between female homosociality and female homoerotic practices. She describes the sequence in which Sita massages Radha’s feet at the picnic as ‘transforming a daily female homosocial activity into an intensely homoerotic one’. Similarly, the scene in which Radha oils Sita’s hair becomes erotically charged in view of their sexual involvement.

Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi in Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996). Courtesy Kaleidoscope Entertainment/Trial by Fire Films/Zeitgeist Films.

The homosocial activities that Ratha and Sita engage in are commonly witnessed in life as in films. By framing these activities in social, romantic, erotic, and finally, explicitly sexual contexts, the film inscribes images of homosociality with an ambiguity that dislocates any deterministic reading of them as necessarily heterosexual. This interpretive strategy, privileged in queer subcultures, now enters the public domain, altering forever mainstream spectatorial practices. From now on, queers and non-queers alike are destined to read ‘too much’ into the text.

This new interpretative strategy facilitates the reclamation of the older texts through newer ways of reading where reading back is inevitably ‘reading into’ (White 1999, 197).This retro-spectatorship makes available a number of films where, heterosexual love interests notwithstanding, same-sex love and friendship are central to the plot. Films including Dosti (Friendship, Satyen Bose, 1964), Anand (Joy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1971) Namak Haram (The Traitor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1973) Sholay (Embers, Ramesh Sippy, 1975), Anurodh (Request, Shakti Samanta, 1977), Yaraana (Friendship, Rakesh Kumar, 1981), Naam (Name, Mahesh Bhatt, 1986), and Main Khiladi Tu Anari (I Am the Expert and You’re Amateur, Sameer Malkan, 1994) can be – and have been – opened out for new readings. This process is generously aided by Bombay cinema’s longstanding convention of staging love and friendship through similar and overlapping tropes of intimacy – gazing, touching, and embracing – as well as passionate declarations of love and commitment.

Excerpted with permission from Fire, Shohini Ghosh, Orient Publishing.