Can Sexual Freedom Dismantle Patriarchy? A Discussion on Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’

Is patriarchy more concerned with sexual repression or social reproduction?

In 2018, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavaat was met with protests upon its release for portraying a Muslim ruler as a “lover” of the Hindu Rajput queen, Padmavati. The Karni Sena protested against the film’s release and threatened the lead actress. Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burkha, was also denied certification by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) for being “lady oriented.” Such protests are not new in the Indian context. In 1996, Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire, faced similar resistance. Shiv Sena activists attacked cinemas in Mumbai and Delhi, and the film was taken down from theatres in these cities.

Carol Upadhya’s 1998 article “Set This House on Fire” argues that the Shiv Sainiks protested against the film because it challenges male control over female sexuality. The Hindu right, she says, is attempting to define “mainstream morality” to suit its vision of an “ideal” Indian society—one that is rooted in the power structures of family, caste, and class. 

In another article in 1999, Mary E John and Tejaswini Niranjana critique Fire for portraying freedom of sexual choice as a sufficient condition for female emancipation from patriarchy. They also criticise Upadhya for narrowing the feminist debate by considering Indian society as comprising of nothing but the male control of female sexuality. Upadhya responds to John and Niranjana, and argues against their assertion that the opposition to the film stems from casteism. Ratna Kapur also responds to John and Niranjana, arguing that Fire deals less with patriarchy and more with the social realities of a Hindu joint family.  

A few other works that are broadly related to this discussion:

  1. Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State, Uma Chakravarti, 1993
  2. The Concept of Honour: Caste Ideology and Patriarchy in Rural Maharashtra, Manisha Gupte, 2013
  3. Towards a Theory of 'Brahmanic Patriarchy,' Gail Omvedt, 2000
  4. Caught in a Time Warp, Usha Subramanian, 2017

Ed: To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at edit@epw.in with the subject line—“Sexuality and Patriarchy.”

Curated by Kieran Lobo [kieran@epw.in

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