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Sage Sweetwater

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Sage Sweetwater extends a Newsletter Invitation to her friends and fans. Only available exclusively on Authors Den.
Newsletter Dated: 2/28/2007 3:39:23 PM

Subject: Inflamed Passions

SAGE SWEETWATER'S NEWSLETTER this month focuses on the examination of media commentary and controversy on the Indian movie "FIRE".

I WANT TO DRAW ATTENTION to the oppressive condition of Indian women's lives in India. My editor Jake George of Authors Den, who has signed as exclusive editor of Sage Sweetwater novels has just finished editing BLUE CORN WOMAN, my next novel out in summer 2007. I have devoted a storyline about "FIRE" in Chapter 14.

SAGE SWEETWATER ESPOUSES A FIERY BRAND OF FEMINISM as her fans well know. The movie "FIRE" in India, is viewed as the Trojan horse for radical Western feminism.

THIS NEWSLETTER ILLUSTRATES RESISTANCE GLOBALLY, which invokes religion to regulate women; control over female bodies becomes a crucial strategy for rejecting the global. Issues pertaining to female identity, sexuality, and social location are reworked in Chp

MAINSTREAM HINDU MOVIES are referred to derogatorily as Bollywood products, the Indian version of Hollywood.

IN DECEMBER 1998, a small group of protesters halted the screening of the movie Fire in two Bombay theatres. The following day a similar group attacked a theatre in New Delhi. In both cities, the protesters were primarily women affiliated with the Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist organization with roots in the city of Bombay. (In referring to Indian cities, throughout this paper I have used older, more familiar names rather than the revised names, such as Mumbai, which may be unfamiliar to U.S. readers.) They wore saffron-colored scarves to mark their religious affiliation, bought tickets to the screening and once inside the hall burnt posters, destroyed furniture and effectively banned a film that had gained an audience primarily among women. The protesters condemned the movie's portrayal of lesbian sexuality claiming it was alien to Indian culture and an affront to its values. Further, they asserted the movie's storyline would "spoil women" and lead to the collapse of marriage as an institution. (The idiomatic phrase spoil women refers to the corruption of the female psyche through processes of westernization and modernization which would make her ineligible for the mantle of Indian femininity.) The protests spread to other parts of the country where theatre owners withdrew the film rather than face the wrath of the religious right. The only exception to this trend was in the city of Calcutta where viewers shouted out the protesters and forced them to leave cinema halls. These violent responses were countered by civil rights groups, women's groups and other organizations that rallied in support of the screening of the film. The ensuing debate foregrounded the film's representation of women and sexual desire, the role of cinema in the articulation of a national culture, and the limits of dissonance and debate within a liberal democratic framework.

POPULAR CONTROVERSY to cinematic representations is not novel nor is it limited to India, but this particular debate reveals the multiple and contradictory ways in which gender, sexuality and religion intersect to produce discourses of national identity. Made by Indian-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta the film's reception in India and other countries with sizable populations of Indian origin reveals as well the imbrication of gender in local resistances to the effects of globalization. (In Singapore and Kenya, residents of Indian-origin were successful in banning Fire.) The film and its representations of women became repositories for the anxieties accompanying economic and social transformations enabled by the global flows of labor and capital.

NEWSPAPERS AND NEWSMAGAZINES devoted a lot of space to the controversy surrounding Fire. While the majority of the news articles and journalistic accounts focused on the protests conducted against the film, the opinion pieces and editorial columns tended to espouse support for it. The multivalent reception of Fire in India is most usefully seen as an arena wherein a number of discourses around femininity, sexuality and modern nationalism intersect and feed on each other. The various articles and commentaries presented radically polarized understandings of the function of cinema and of Fire's representations of middle-class Indian women. These responses can be understood only in the context of the difficult shifts and uneasy negotiations that mark the construction of modern India; the different valences accorded to gender, sexuality and religion in competing definitions of Indianness. Above all, they expose the centrality of the female figure in imaginings of the Indian nation. Sorting through these divergent responses helps us understand the ideological investments that have accumulated around the articulation of the female subject and the location of sexuality in discourses of Indian identity, and, in general, discussions of nationalism. An analysis of the para-texts surrounding Fire reveals as well the irritated position diasporic cinema occupies in definitions of national identity or national culture.

THE CONTROVERSY OVER FIRE occurred at a historical moment when Indian woman was being reconstituted as a diacritic of Hindu nationalism, a specific religious nationalism. When the Hindu fundamentalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), took over the national government its members attempted to resituate women within the structures of the patriarchal family. At the same time, politicians sought to institute an affirmative action program that would ensure women comprised at least a third of elected officials at all levels of representation. On first glance these appear to be contradictory gestures, but, in fact, they permit the Hindu parties to present a "modern" face and simultaneously lay claim to being the guardian of tradition. As in the nationalist movement of the early twentieth century protesting British colonial rule, in the political arena enabled by the rise of religious fundamentalism woman has emerged once again as a contested symbol central to the articulation of Indian identity (see Chatterjee; Vaid and Sangari). The policing and containment of female sexuality have become central elements in these imaginations of nation and national identity. Through an examination of the various debates that exploded around the screening of Fire we explore the manner in which homosexuality and women's assertion of sexual desire come to signify the endangered purity of the Indian nation. Although we have singled out this instance for analysis, within India, the social construction of gender and compulsory heterosexuality occur quietly at quotidian sites where politics and religion intersect.

FIRE is the first part of a trilogy Mehta has conceived to offer a gendered view of the social transformations effected in India during the twentieth century. The second movie in this trilogy is Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India, and was released in 1999. It deals with the partition of the subcontinent following British withdrawal in 1947. Water, the third movie, travels further back in time to the 1920s and has not been completed at the time of this writing. The Hindu right has opposed the shooting of the film in India.

____SPOILER, You may not want to read beyond this if you have not seen this movie "FIRE." Below details the plot and outcome of the movie...

FIRE is about middle class arranged marriages and the persistence of joint family establishments in cramped urban apartments. Set in contemporary New Delhi, its protagonist Radha, played by Shabana Azmi, is married to Ashok. When the story begins the childless couple has been married for over fifteen years. Radha runs the family take-out business, she is the primary caregiver of her stroke-ridden mother-in-law and stoically bears the stigma of her infertility. She epitomizes the "traditional" Indian woman, duty bound and subsuming her individuality to the needs of the family. Ashok has shifted his attention from his family to his spiritual guru, attends to him and practices celibacy. In a move reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi's experiments with celibacy, Ashok insists that Radha share his bed so he can test his capacity for sexual restraint.

INTO THIS UNHAPPY FAMILY enters Sita, the new bride of Ashok's younger brother, Jatin. It becomes very clear early in the film that although Jatin has agreed to the arranged marriage with Sita he is still in love with his Chinese girlfriend. Jatin abandons his bride for his girlfriend and leaves Sita to negotiate her position within the joint family set-up. Sita is the antithesis of Radha; in an interview Mehta describes her as "modern India, desiring independence over tradition" (Sidhwa, 77). Gradually, the two women, who have been abandoned by their husbands for different reasons, forge a deep emotional bond, which evolves into a sexual relationship. Ashok stumbles upon the two women in bed after he learns of their relationship from a disgruntled servant. The movie ends with the two women opting to leave their married home, but not before Radha chooses to explain her choice to Ashok. While the husband and wife conduct a heated discussion in the kitchen a fire erupts and Ashok decides to rescue his invalid mother rather than help Radha, who is caught in the flames. She saves herself and leaves the home to join her lover, Sita.

MEHTA has repeatedly refused to characterize her film as one about lesbian sexuality, instead she claims it is about female characters "needing to be alive."

SOME WOMEN'S ORGANIZATIONS in India as well as feminists and gay/lesbian activists have contested Mehta's disavowal of the queer subject. Not only have they objected to the film's facile depiction of lesbian sexuality as "an option forced by conjugal neglect," they point out that Mehta herself coopts the queer subject for narrative purposes marginalizing the significance of such visibility and representation. They point out that Fire's presentation of lesbian identity is not politicized but presented as a lifestyle choice. In an interview with the Manchester Guardian, the movie's protagonist, Azmi, has described the film as significant precisely because of its exploration of lesbian sexuality. She explains that her initial reluctance to undertake the role was spurred by the repercussions it could have on her cinematic career within India. These issues are marginalized in Mehta's repeated assertions that the film is not about lesbianism.

I HIGHLY RECOMMEND watching the movie "FIRE" as it gives a realistic view of the status of lesbians in India. I give it *****STARS. Here is the link to buy the movie.

Until next time, be well dear readers. I love you all.

~~~~Sage Sweetwater, firebrand lesbian novelist~~~~

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