Director. Toronto Indo-Canadian Mehta would have a place of pride as honorary queer in this listing on the sole basis of her ground-breaking lesbian feature Fire (1996, Toronto, 104). This lavish but astute melodrama of sisters-in-law in love was shot entirely in Delhi with Indian leads and a Canadian supporting cast but without any Canadian public investment. One of the most talked-about films in Indian history, Fire led to theatres being stormed and boosted the local queer movement to new levels of visibility. But it is actually a rather modest love story set within a labyrinthine extended family, elevated by star power (actresses Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das) and the rich visual symbolism of sensuous fabrics and purifying flames. Furthermore, as Xtra!’s headline put it, “Fire is hot!” (11 Sept 1997). The heterosexual director Mehta’s third feature received standing ovations at North American festivals despite carping by straight white male critics, and some lesbians, in both North America and India, who challenged what they saw as a contextual theory of lesbianism, women driven into each others’ beds only by husbandly neglect. But a larger context of a trans-national artistic milieu where courage is rare and a turbulent planetary traffic in sexual identities increasingly calls into question cultural and national borders, confirms Fire’s status as a historic moment in Canadian—and Indian—queer film history.
In fact, Fire is not unrepresentative of Mehta’s oeuvre as a whole: her half a dozen features show a consistent commitment to probing the delicate borders between homosociality and homoeroticism, male (Sam and Me, 1991; Earth, 1999) as well as female. Mehta is especially astute at dissecting the volatile construction of diasporic masculinity, and the explorations of drag and transgressive gender performance inSam and Me and Bollywood Hollywood (2002) are vivid and unsettling spectacle.