Jaishree Kapur and Harshit Nigam | DUJES Volume 28 | 2020 Issue

Choice(s) and Whose Choice(s)? : De-construction of Choice(s) in Fire and Queen
Jaishree Kapur and Harshit Nigam

Jaishree Kapur is a Ph.D. Research Fellow at the University School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indraprastha University, New Delhi. She is working on cinematic adaptations of literary narratives that deal with the issue of caste in the different regions of India. She holds a gold medal for her outstanding performance in English literature. She has also worked as an Assistant Professor (Guest) in one of the constituent colleges of Delhi University. 

Harshit Nigam is an academic, scholar, and poet from Delhi. His areas of interest include but not limited to Film Studies, Gandhian Discourses, Modernism and Postmodernism, Gender, and Caste Studies. Harshit works as an Assistant Professor (Guest) at Miranda House, Delhi University. 

“What it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of woman?” asks Judith Butler in her essay, ‘Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire’. Refusing to accept the very subject of ‘woman’ in stable or abiding terms, she interrogates the “immutable character of sex” to foreground that one’s sexual identity is as much socially constructed as one’s gendered identity. Thus one is forced to reflect on Butler’s question, “Can construction be reduced to choice?” What happens when a person rejects this constructed identity and doing so explores the multiple selves? This paper is an attempt to understand the evolving ‘self’ of women in the Indian Cinema through the case study of Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) and Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014), and to analyze therein the limited ‘choices’ granted to the women, preconditioned by the disciplinary institutions, such as religion, custom, home, family, marriage, society, and how the women explore their identity by widening or ‘de-constructing’ the scope of these monolithic ‘choices’. The paper neatly divided into four sections will contextualize the films against the backdrop of the ‘liberal’ and the ‘new’ economy, followed by a close reading of the films, and conclude with an attempt to question the limited assertion of the ‘choices’ in the select films. More specifically, the authors probe the narrow and the limited scope of this ‘de-construction’ as the ‘choices’ are being regulated by the spectators, the performers, and the filmmakers within the contemporary urban cultural matrix.
Keywords: India Shining, multiplex, urbanity, desire, lesbianism, reductionist gaze.                               

            Indian Cinema as a medium of popular entertainment resonates everywhere, and from its nascent stage visualized the conflict between tradition and modernity, east and west, conservatism and radicalism, the integral determinants of the social and the cultural life in the subcontinent. It has also remained a significant site of appropriations and formulations of ‘what is new?’ and to dispense the past. The attempts within the cinematic imagination to negotiate and assert the modern urban culture paved a milestone in defining the nation through epithets such as ‘shining, ‘rising’, and ‘unbound’. The endeavors behind the notion of “India Shining” had started getting mobilized in the last decade of the 20th century with the advent of the ‘liberal’ economic policy and its free market strategies.1 There has been a small segment of the middle class population throughout the post-independence era which craved for the western style products, commodities, fashion, and cultural trends.
Liberalization gave birth to the fetishism for these western goods. Further, the IT revolution led to an accelerated proliferation of the western cultural imports, and simultaneously created a need to circulate the Indian goods and the cultural harvest in the west. The cosmopolitan cultural forms drew the world into a commercial sameness but also garnished these forms with one’s own history and culture. This expanded the foreign market for the Indian films, and also created the fertile grounds for the production of the Crossover films.2 The hype in the cosmopolitan culture led to a remarkable change within the themes, the iconography, and the mise-en-scenes of the films.3 At this critical juncture, Deepa Mehta’s Crossover film Fire (India/Canada), depicting an intimate and physical bonding between Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), sisters-in-law living in a joint middle class family in the metropolis of Delhi, and struggling to assert their ‘choice’ and sexual desire, against the conservative family being regulated by the disciplinary institutions of religion, custom, conjugality, and society came out in the theatres. The film challenges and subverts the narrative conventions of the popular Indian Cinema – allegiance for family, devotional wife, strife between the brothers living under the same roof, and loyalty for mother. Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) provided coup de grace for the realpolitik of the Indian cinematic and visual culture, and accelerated the churning of the women oriented films, not just imitating the chauvinistic male standards of ‘feminine’, rather taking a radical position, and still further defining the ‘female experience’.4 This depiction of the ‘female experience’ on the Indian celluloid got fully verbalized at the intersection of the advent of the multiplex cinema halls and the spatial politics of the urban centers.
The successive governments through the early 1990s5 made attempt to remove the stringent laws and the licensing policies, releasing economy altogether free from the clutches of the state. The major benefactor of this “era of deregulation” (Athique and Hill 2) was the media industries. The ‘new’ economy validated the newer consumption patterns related to the aspirations of the new urban middle class, emblematic of the social progress, so to say. Moreover, the granting of the status of an official industry for the film business in 2001 strengthened the role of the entertainment and the leisure sectors. It also led to the difference in production, marketing, and reception of films. The form or the ‘content of the form’ for the films drastically changed over the past fifteen years, and registered a trend setting within the public culture and the Indian capital. Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva (2000), Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish (2012), Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014), Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink (2016), Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), Ravi Udyawar’s Mom (2017) are the representative features of the contemporary period, which either through their theme or form established the trend of ‘female experience’, and offered new embrasures for the women’s ‘choices’. There has also been a shift in the portrayal of the women characters, making them more complex in response to the local and the global forces. Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014) is a product of these changes within the sociology of the Indian Cinema. Queen (2014) narrates the self evolving journey of an ordinary Indian girl, Rani (Kangana Ranaut) whose ‘choices’ have been limited by the family and the society. The film also etches an altogether different denouement from the erstwhile films, where the heroine decides to leave the man who cannot love her unconditionally, and moves on with the assertion of her ‘choice’.                                                                                                                               

Fire6 borrows the name of its lead characters from the epic heroines to presents the story of Radha (ShabanaAzmi) and Sita (Nandita Das)7, caught in a loveless marriage within the traditional Hindu joint family setting. The husbands, Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and Jatin( Javed Jaffrey) control their ‘labour’ (they nurse biji,  the grandmother along with the other domestic chores, Ashok regulates his desires for the past thirteen years by not touching Radha’s naked body laid in front of him, whereas Jatin suggests Sita to bear his child while he maintains his affair with Julie) , ‘mobility’ (they either move out of the four walls of the house along with the family or only to buy vegetables), ‘work’ (regardless of any share in the profit, they accentuate the family business), and subdue the very identities of these women leaving them in no-choice, no exit situation.
Deepa Mehta chooses to visualize not only a provocative lesbian connection between Radha and Sita, rather bluntly enunciates the orthodox heterosexuality  by claiming  the film as one “which explores choices, desires and psyche of people who are victims of tradition”8, by rendering visible those women who chose to  reject both the alternatives , ‘baby producing machines’ and ‘dutiful wives’. Society provides Ashok the ‘choice’ to find another woman for himself but both the women have to carve a path within the limited ‘choices’ available to them. The death of the heterosexual relationship gives birth to homoeroticism. This homoeroticism is neither innate nor an accident but a conscious ‘choice’ that they assert.
‘Lesbian gaze’ has been engorged in the film through the exchanged looks and the everyday physical attraction between Radha and Sita. Sita asks Radha to oil her hair. Communication is established through look, touch, and scent of the hair oil. Sita’s enactment of ‘butch’ or the male role (butch-femme) within the dance sequence is captured by the ‘lesbian gaze’ of Radha, substituting the ‘male gaze’ or voyeurism of the popular cinema where woman is seen as a commodity. Laura Mulvey has suggested that the film form is structured by the “unconscious of patriarchal society”, and only cater to male desire. However, the ‘lesbian gaze’ verbalizes the desire of the two women. There is awakening of the lesbian identity in the flashback. Mother tells Radha “close your eyes … and you will see”. To see is upshot of getting visible. For Radha coming out as a lesbian is crucial. From hetero-normative point of view, Radha is sterile for her husband but “from lesbian point of view she is rather like a virgin than a saint” (Telmissany 268). Fire is symbolic. On the one hand, the ‘agnipariksha’ that Radha has to undergo can be seen as a compromise with the traditional customs. On the other side it can be seen as an assertion of ‘choice’. In the film watched by Mundu, Sita says “Let the flames be my witness”.  However in Mehta’s film it is Radha, “who has to go through fire in order to complete the circle of her sexual experimentation, and be reborn like a phoenix as a lesbian woman” (268).
            Radha gently oils Sita’s hair, cooks food for her which they eat together, and both caress each other’s feet. Debunking the ethics of Karvachauth, Radha both literally and symbolically substitutes Jatin to quench Sita’s thirst. The constant food, water, fingers, feet imagery catalyze the eroticism on the screen. In addition to the cardamom “for fresh breath”, Radha adorns Sita with her own wedding bangles as a substitute for Jatin’s wedding ring, which carries sexual undertones. Together they look at their single image in the mirror, replicating each other’s gaze which on the one hand becomes a tool for the self-identification, and on the other, a medium to recognize the solidarity of their relationship. Radha’s empathy with the Queen of Karvachauth ritual, “She didn’t have much choice” is immediately bashed by Sita, “We can find many choices” indicating, the shift in the nature of ‘choices’ from the mythical figures to the contemporary women.
Sita’s constant yearning for her mother is satiated by the childless Radha who also mothered her own mother-in- law (by nursing, feeding, and cooking), and in turn becoming the ‘other’. Later, she tells Sita, “in an instant he [Ashok] looked like a child”, and she wanted to kiss him as a mother. Radha’s motherhood blossoms in the arms of Sita, and after their first kiss, Radha recalls her mother, symbolic of an erotic dream as it leads to her sexual awakening. The kiss which had been prohibited by the Central Board of Film Censors, and judged by the conservatives as a ‘non Indian practice’ will be the first act of double dissidence committed by Sita and Radha. Kissing is therefore a challenge to both the cinematic conservatism and the socially accepted heterosexual paradigms. These women not only assert their personal sexual ‘choices’ but also question, challenge, and subvert the normative patriarchal authority. Sita denies to have Jatin’s child, slaps him back calling him a “pompous fool”, whereas Radha debunks her domestic duties, derides  Ashok, “Why don’t you feed biji tonight?”, simultaneously  refusing  to lie down next to him “to help him test his desires”.
Desire plays a crucial role in determining ones ‘choices’. According to the dictums of Swamiji, “desire brings ruin” which is questioned by Radha, “Does it? Without desire I was dead; without desire, there is no point in living. I desire to live. I desire Sita, I desire her warmth, her compassion, her body, I desire to live again”, shattering Ashok’s vow of celibacy as he fails in his test and kiss her mercilessly to quench his own desire. Jatin’s desire to live with Julie (Alice Poon) will remain unaccomplished as she herself desires to go to Hong Kong and become a martial arts film star. Mundu, the servant can only perform the role of a voyeur, first by watching pornographic videos, and later by secretly looking at the women as they make love, remaining insatiate in his desire. Radha and Sita are the only beings who make correct ‘choices’ and accomplish their desires. As a result, Radha emerges unscathed from her fiery ordeal proving the chastity of her love but unlike the mythical Sita, leaves the domestic space without waiting for her husband to banish her. Fire acts both as a destroyer and a purifier as it not only engulfs the four walls of the house but also purifies the relationship of Radha and Sita, transferring guilt on to Ashok who leaves her alone when her saree catches fire to hold biji, a representative of submissiveness to conservatism. The film poignantly ends with the fiery passion within the hearts of these women, drenched in rain water, sitting on the land in an open space, bringing together all the four elements necessary for survival - fire, water, earth, and air.

In Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014), the protagonist Rani (Kangana Ranaut) is prohibited by her parents, fiancé, and society to fulfill her desires. The functions that Rani is supposed to enact has been stereotypically preordained, so much so that she needs help in the selection of her jewellery, for uploading photographs on Facebook, the presence of her much younger brother everywhere (even on her date), and  to get her passport fixed. Her preference of home science classes and preparation of sweets in the family confectionary shop are not options but well determined actions that she has to perform in order to fit her in the role of a girl-to-be-bride. Vijay (Rajkummar Rao) who incessantly wooed her despite her claiming that “I don’t like you” till she finally gave in, rejects her saying, “I’ve changed. A lot of things have changed … you’re still the same”, eventually resulting in her perpetual begging, “I’ll do whatever you want” accompanied by the song lyrics, “… main toh idhar udhar phiroon, roothi roothi si…” representing every ordinary girl who appears to have privileges but is in fact only a façade. ‘Choice’ too is a privilege, forcing one to think whether behind all the garb, is there any agency/voice/choice available to women?
The film depicts magnificently that women can explore the ‘choice’ at their own. The first decision that she asserts is her fulfillment of her dream to go to Paris on her honeymoon (preceded by the sentence, “If you won’t allow, I’ll not go”), which eventually becomes her journey of self evolvement. After getting some cultural shocks, she encounters an Indian-Bohemian hybrid woman, Vijaylaxmi (Lisa Haydon) who perfectly fits Homi Adajania’s conception and representation of women projected in My Choice (2015).9 She is sensuous, sultry, enjoys her libido, can afford the designer clothes on her own. With her bare clothes, her son (without marriage), her all too often sexual intercourse with strangers, smoking, drinking, dancing, partying with porn stars, she symbolizes everything that a stereotypical westernized emancipated woman could stand for.
Moving beyond the surface level, a possible lesbian-friendship can be traced among Rani and Vijaylaxmi. Rani’s dream of looking at the Eiffel tower with her married partner is fulfilled along with her. The latter goes behind the curtain of a Parisian store to the shock followed by the laughter of Rani, who blurts “I’m not wearing anything”.  Rani gives her condoms before they enter the party while Vijaylaxmi uses her brassiere as a scarf to adorn Rani’s head, stating “look at your breast and ass, Mi Bella”, metaphorically asking her to look at her own self, at her body that needs self-acceptance, self-worth, prior any external recognition. Shedding off all her inhibitions, Rani dances, sings, burps as she likes in public. She gets herself clicked on the road by strangers, shops, drives, and cycles with the wide open arms, as if to embrace her new beginning, cherishing every insignificant thing that was earlier denied to her. Cross dressed, Vijaylaxmi tells her while departing, “you lost Vijay but you gained Vijaylaxmi … show me your move.” The move here is not merely a dance posture but also the movement, the momentum that Rani has to gain for her evolvement. Rani takes the decision to board the train for Amsterdam to undergo another journey of self-identification, and when Vijay calls her up (after looking at her strappy dress and cleavage), she screams “Rani is dead”, signaling the death of the past restraints, inhibitions, and rejections. Her autonomous decision of not going back to India without visiting Amsterdam reflects the power to assert one’s ‘choice’ that she has now inculcated.
To the utter shock of Vijay and the Indian spectators, Rani in Amsterdam shares her room with a Russian graffiti artist Oleksander (who aims to end the oil war through his art), a jovial Japanese tsunami victim Taka (who lost his parents, home, job), and a black musician. Looking at Oleksander’s sketches, she realizes “I want to do something” to which he responds, “who is stopping you?” making her realize that once she is determined, nobody can stop her. She remembers about the economic independence that was denied to her by Vijay, “I won’t let you die of hunger, don’t you trust me? Why do you want to work then?” he had said when she asked him if she could work after marriage. Through her talent and expertise in culinary skills (which was earlier unnoticed) she wins a competition in Amsterdam. By placing a golgappa stall in an Italian restaurant, she gains not only economic independence but also a sense of self worth. Moreover, she initiates as well as actively participates in and celebrates a “lip to lip kiss” with an Italian chef, establishing the beginning of her sexual awakening. She drives the car while men sit back, they roam around singing, dancing, playing, and drinking on street, visiting sex toys shop as well as lap dancers together. Leaving Vijay (and her wedding card) behind in an ecstatic moment, she runs to participate in a rock show with her friends, travelling the whole distance on foot. In fact she is constantly travelling from one place to another, forever moving high on the journey of her life, like a river with its ebbs and flows, never to feel stagnant.
On entering Vijay’s personally controlled space, his house, she discards his mother’s post marriage plan to drink tea, read magazines, and attend kitty parties when men go to the office. While returning her wedding ring to Vijay, she hugs him twice (as if to console him) with a big ‘thank you’ and leaves him behind – head held high. Here is a girl who has overcome her fears, her insecurities, grabbed what was denied to her, and rejected what was unwanted. People that entered her life became means, not the end products of her liberation. Vikas Bahl opens up a myriad of possibilities for her; she can be a homosexual, a heterosexual, or lead a life of celibacy – ‘it is her choice’.

Fire fails to lend the women protagonists any economic independence as they leave one male controlled sphere (home) to enter into another (Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia). According to Mary E John and Tejaswini Niranjana, the film suggests that women can be liberated from the repressive social conditions merely by the assertion of sexual ‘choice’ that ignores the wide range of repressive patriarchal structures. However, this ‘choice’ is provided at the cost of leaving one’s religious ethics. While Hindu home is seen as restrictive, Muslim spaces are open with the emancipatory resonances. It is the Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia that provides an unrestrained emotional intimacy to Radha and Sita. The fact that Aulia had a homoerotic bond with the poet Amir Khusro over determines its potential as a monument for possibilities. Interestingly, towards the end Radha and Sita meet at the Dargah. It is only at a picnic at the Qutub Minar, again a Muslim space, where Radha and sita engage in an implicit lesbian act through the feet massage.
One is forced to retrace the American ‘Feminist Utopia’10 and contemplate whether the director of Queen had the ‘choice’ to present any other route of emancipation for his heroine? Can Rani be presented as a replica of Vijaylaxmi or the lap dancer who works for a good cause? Can her younger brother and father, who used to ogle at the scantily clad body of Vijaylakshmi , accept Rani in the same attire? Did she have the ‘choice’ to move beyond a kiss? It seems that both Bahl and Rani have to exercise their ‘choices’ without letting down the traditional and the cultural baggage. The moot question is whose ‘choice’ is after all being depicted through the narrative, the director’s, the actor’s, or the spectators’? Karen Gabriel in Melodrama and the Nation: Sexual Economies of Bombay Cinema suggests that the actresses project out the globalized icons of an enlightened female sexuality, and are yet constrained by the shifting, narrow nuances of femininity within the subcontinent.
The first multiplex cinema hall in India became operational in the year 1997. However, the mounting up of the multiplexes in the nation was not a uniform process. They precisely sprang up in the urban metropolitan centers and remained absent in the small and remote towns. The intention behind infiltrating the Indian urban cultural matrix with the multiplexes was to re-shape the Indian cities as ‘global cities’, capable “to bring together flows of international capital” (Athique and Hill 2). These multiplexes representing the new valuable public space, aimed at the benefits of the denizens of the new suburbs at the cost of farmers, industrial workers, and urban poor. The multiplex era “sideline the proletariat audience and focus on the new middle-classes and the intelligentsia who now frequent the cinema halls in large numbers” (Nigam, 88). Almost on the tracks of the ‘reductionist gaze’ of Homi Adjania’s video, My Choice, Fire and Queen too imbibes the western paradigms and the stereotypes for a handful of the urban metropolitan elite women, to be modern, western, and progressive. The discourse of ‘choices’ in both the films turn out to be bourgeois and individualistic, a successful commercial trait for globalization. Gayatri Chakravary Spivak argues that a feminist discourse can never locate emancipation in individualism, but rather has to be essentially embedded with the notion of solidarity. After making love Sita reminds Radha, “There is no word in our language that can describe what we are, how we feel for each other”. Radha instead of eloping from the clutches of a patriarchal society chooses to stay back, “I need to tell him.” Here, the childless Radha has already given birth to a new language that has the ability to voice the innermost desires of women, which calls for both equality as well as solidarity to safeguard every woman’s right to the freedom of ‘choice’.

1 Liberal economy was half-heartedly accepted by Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s and more assertively by Narshima Rao in the early 90s.
2 Crossover films refer to the films representing the varied value systems that get materialized when the communities cross the cultural margins. Dev Benegal’s English August (1994), Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), Nagesh Kuknoor’s Hyderabad Blues (1998), Revathi’s Mitr: My Friend (2002) and Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) are the emblematic ones by the Indian directors.
3 Commercial blockbusters such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Pardes (1997), Dil To Pagal Hai (1997), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), and several others marked a distinctive change in the iconography and the mise-en-scenes, and focused on the theme of preserving the traditional Indian values and principles amidst the growing western impact in the globalized world.       
4 Akin to the three phases of women’s writing put forth by Elaine Showalter in The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, 1985.  
5 The governments led by Indian National Congress (1991-96), United Front (1996-98), National Democratic Alliance (1998-2004), and UPA I and UPA II (2004-14).   
6 The film received criticism for its open depiction of homosexuality on the screen. Theatres were burned down and the actors received death threats.
7 Radha an archetype from the Indian epic, The Mahabharata exemplified eternal suffering for one’s lover. Sita an archetype from the Indian epic, The Ramayana exemplified an extreme devotion towards one’s husband by being an embodiment of virtuousness and chastity.
8 “About Deepa Mehta”, Film Distributors Website <http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/current/fire/firedeepaonfilm.html>
9 The short television video released in 2015 proposed to acknowledge the female body, subject, voice, and structure in both personal as well as private space, but the reductionist gaze of Homi Adajania, constructed and appropriated western paradigms and stereotypes. 
10 The word ‘feminist utopia’ was coined in the 1980s. It referred to the reality and beyond reality of an ideal spirit reflected in the deepest accomplished desires of the female.

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