When a legend of the stature of Dilip Kumar, who lived a glorious life of close to a hundred years, passes away, tributes pour in. Everyone goes out of their way to say what a great man he was and how much they loved him. This, of course, is how it should be. But how many of us remember that towards the end of the 20th century, Dilip Kumar was a victim of a vicious homophobic attack?

In 1998, Deepa Mehta, the director of Indian origin who lived in Canada, released Fire, the second film in her trilogy concerning the elements, the first being Earth and the last being Water. Fire depicted a rebellious lesbian relationship between two sisters-in-law in a middle-class Delhi household. The roles were played by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das.

In the film, the women, Radha and Sita, are married to two brothers, Ashok and Jatin, who run a takeaway. The women discover their love for each other when they are neglected by their respective husbands. The film ends with the women walking out on their husbands and deciding to spend their lives together.

When Fire was released, the Delhi High Court judgement of July 2009, which read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, ruling that the colonial-era law would not apply to consenting adult homosexuals, and arguing that constitutional morality was more important than public morality, was a good 11 years away. While right-wing political outfits objected to the film, calling for its ban, many in the gay community refused to see Fire as a lesbian film, arguing that the lesbianism portrayed in the film was at best situational lesbianism. The women turned to lesbianism on the rebound.

Deepa Mehta herself said in interviews that the film wasn’t about lesbianism per se, but was really about giving women agency. So much so, that when a group of lesbians attended a public meeting in Delhi to protest against the banning of the film, they were accused of hijacking the meeting. Their placard that described them as “Indian and Lesbian” even earned them the reputation of being militant and anarchist.

To the Shiv Sena, however, that the film wasn’t a lesbian film per se, but was more about the democratic rights of women, was a mere nicety. They vandalised cinema halls where the film was released, and resorted to vulgar catcalls whenever the lesbian scenes came on. They said that they would settle for nothing less than a complete ban on the film.

andita Das and Shabana Azmi in Fire (1996). Courtesy Kaleidoscope Entertainment/Trial by Fire Films/Zeitgeist Films.

Bal Thackeray, the then Shiv Sena chief, went to the extent of sarcastically saying that he would allow the film to run, provided the mythological names of the two sisters-in-law – Radha and Sita – were replaced by Muslim names. One such name that he is supposed to have suggested was that of Shabana herself. Though the remark was tongue in cheek, it reflected the stereotypical view that it was Muslims who brought homosexuality to India during medieval times.

It isn’t just men in the Shiv Sena, but also its women’s wing, the Mahila Aghadi, that was outraged by Fire. They issued a statement that said, “If women turn to each other to satisfy their needs, what will happen to the institution of the family?” The concept of political lesbianism was obviously unknown to them.

Around the same time that Fire was released, Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys, which had a gay male character played by Roshan Seth, was also released. But the Shiv Sena did not take exception to Bombay Boys. The message was clear. In a patriarchal set-up, men could get away with whatever they desired. But women could not.

It is here that Dilip Kumar stepped in. Along with Deepa Mehta, he filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court seeking permission to screen the film with adequate police protection. This was enough to make the Shiv Sena see red. That Dilip Kumar was a Muslim also went against his favour.

The Shiv Sena vowed revenge. On a given day, they assembled outside Dilip Kumar’s Pali Hill bungalow in large numbers, stripped down to their chaddis, and danced frenziedly in front of his house with drums for more than half an hour. It was their way of punishing him for opposing their resolve to ban the film. Their indecent act was perhaps a way of conveying to Dilip Kumar that the support of an “obscene” film needed to be answered with counter obscenity.

Though the columnist Busybee (the late Behram Contractor) made light of the incident in his column Round and About, the embarrassment that the Shiv Sena action must have caused to Dilip Kumar, and to his wife Saira Banu, is unimaginable. It was nothing short of a homophobic assault on a man who wasn’t gay himself, but had merely taken up the cudgels for freedom of speech, and may be for the freedom to express one’s sexual orientation.

Bal Thackeray’s friendship with Dilip Kumar soured when the actor refused to return his Nishan-E-Imtiaz Award, conferred on him by the Government of Pakistan. Thackeray wanted Dilip Kumar to return the award during the Kargil War, but the actor refused to do so, arguing that the award wasn’t a political award, but was given to him for his creativity and his humanitarian work. The Shiv Sena action outside Dilip Kumar’s house seemed to be a result of the fallout between Bal Thackeray and the actor.

Fire was eventually cleared by the Supreme Court without any changes. Today, the film is available on YouTube. In the light of the Supreme Court judgement of September 2018 that decriminalised homosexuality, the film is no longer controversial.

Other gay films have been made, and will continue to be made. The big stars of today, however, lack Dilip Kumar’s spine. None of them spoke up when the central government recently decided to play super-censor and re-certify films already cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification if they did not fall in line with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideology.

Also read:

Being rather than doing: Why Dilip Kumar is one of the greatest actors in Indian cinema

‘My professional name is Dilip Kumar’: Encounters with one of India’s greatest actors

Film flashback: ‘Fire’ was the first Indian film to bring women in love out of the shadows