Umbartha and Fire:
when women turn to each other
to satisfy their needs

by R. Raj Rao

India has always had an ambivalent attitude to women’s empowerment. On the one hand, many university-educated women in India who live and work in metro cities regard themselves as liberated feminists and post-feminists. On the other hand, there are ground realities. Over the years, the various women’s empowerment bills introduced in parliament have never really kicked off in a major way, through ensuring quotas for women in government jobs and state-run educational institutions, the way quotas exist for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Gender-related and sexuality-related issues in India have always remained subservient to caste and class. The ratio of women continues to be less to that of men. Ultra-sound tests that determine the gender of the foetus, so that female foetuses can be killed in the womb, are still conducted by unscrupulous doctors in towns and villages, in spite of legislation that makes such tests a punishable offence. Women continue to be co-opted by the patriarchy to such an extent, that, willy-nilly, they are themselves party to issues like male chauvinism, sexism, misogyny and toxic masculinity. The average Indian woman still thinks she needs a man in her life in order to live a life of dignity. This forces women into oppressive arranged marriages, in which they have little or no agency. The decision to have or not to have a child, for example, usually lies with the husband and his parents, and not with the wife. Marital rape is a phenomenon that is socially unrecognized in India.

It is in this context that I should like to examine the practice of lesbianism in two late twentieth century films, the Marathi film Umbartha (also commonly transcribed as Umbertha, 1982; Hindi version: Subah) and the Hindi/English film Fire (1998).

The Threshold/Umbartha, published screenplay. Calcutta, Seagull Books, 1985. Cover depicts award-winning Bollywood and art film star Smita Patil (1955-1986), whose untimely death the following year led to many tributes and retrospectives around the world. Umbartha, DVD cover (original Marathi version of film). Protagonist played by Smita Patil.


Umbartha, which would translate into English as “Threshold,” is based on a Marathi novel, Beghar, by woman writer Shanta Nisal. The screenplay for the film was by the noted playwright Vijay Tendulkar together with Vasant Dev, while the film was directed by the noted director Jabbar Patel.

The central character in the film is Sulabha Mahajan, played by the art cinema star Smita Patil (1955-1986). Sulabha, in order to make use of her MSW degree, decides to leave her home in the city against the wishes of her husband Subhash (Girish Karnad), and mother-in-law (Kusum Kulkarni), to take up the job of Superintendent of a Women’s Reformatory Home in Sangamwadi, a remote town in Maharashtra.

Production stills from Umbartha: Sulab (Patil) calms inmates as they watch a fellow inmate threatening suicide on the prison roof. Inmates receive their weekly rations.
Inmates spot Sulab arriving as she arrives to take over as prison superintendent . Police return two inmates who have tried to escape .

Sulabha faces many challenges in her job. The women inmates in the home are undisciplined. The management of the home, headed by a matriarchal woman director (Ashalata Wabgaonkar), is so corrupt and self-seeking that it allows a local MLA to have illicit sexual relations with the destitute women of the home to satisfy his lust. When two inmates run away and are forcibly caught and brought back to the home, they decide to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire. The newspapers expose the incident, and the managing committee conducts an enquiry against Sulabha for her alleged mismanagement of the home. She is forced to resign and return to her husband, who, she discovers, has taken a mistress in her absence. Sulabha, like Sita in the Valmiki’s Hindu epic The Ramayana, crossed the threshold, the Laksman Rekha protective circle as it were, by leaving her husband’s home, and she must pay the price for it.

Sulab receives a late-night phone call from a lecherous politician who demands access to the inmates. Goddess Sita pining away in exile, separated from her husband Lord Ram, by South Indian Painter Ravi Raja Varma (1901).

In the midst of all the mayhem portrayed in the Women’s Reformatory Home in Sangamwadi, the director Jabbar Patel decides to insert a lesbian scene in the film. I call the scene an extrapolation because it probably does not exist in the novel Beghar on which the film is based. Screenplay writer Vijay Tendulkar has himself written a homophobic lesbian play, Mitrachi Goshta, translated into English as Friends’ Story, in which the female protagonist who is sexually attracted to members of her own sex, is reclaimed at the end of the play and made to give her consent to an arranged heterosexual marriage.

Two patriarchal heterosexual men, Jabbar Patel and Vijay Tendulkar, took it upon themselves to deal with the theme of lesbianism. That too occurred in 1982, when India’s first gay support group, Ashok Row Kavi’s Humsafar Trust, was still eight years away, and the Naz Foundation had not yet dreamed of filing its petition in the Delhi High Court to abolish Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized what it called “unnatural” sex. Such timing guaranteed that the scene gives a field day to all homophobes and voyeurs, both within the film, as well as in the audience.

But what is the scene? Two women inmates of the home, one stereotypically shown by the camera to be butch and the other femme, are on the roof in the middle of the night hugging and caressing each other. It is an expression of love rather than lust, of belonging rather than longing. Yet, when the male night watchman who is on his rounds discovers them as he flashes his torch on the roof, his reaction is a mixture of shock, disgust and horror. He wakes up all the other inmates of the home and alerts them to the nefarious activities of the two lesbians. The inmates respond to the watchman’s call, rise from their sleep, and gather on tiptoe in the courtyard of the home, even though it is the dead of night, to see what is going on on the roof. The inmates then gang up against the two unfortunate women and publicly shame them with much verbal abuse. They are as shocked, disgusted and horrified by what they have witnessed as the male watchman. Not one of them has the wherewithal to come to the defence of the two victims, in whose place, theoretically speaking, any of them could have been.

As to the two women themselves, they are instantly made a party to their own alleged crime, immorality and guilt. They simply do not have the framework and the vocabulary with which to defend their act. They are doubly marginalized—first as women, and then as women who love each other. If class and caste are added to the politics of identity, the women become trebly marginalized as poor, abandoned, battered women.

That none of the women, including the victims themselves, have the vocabulary and framework to describe what happened on the roof during the night, is evident when the inmates storm into Sulabha’s office the next morning to complain about the incident, and demand the instant removal of the two offending women from the home. The inmates say to Sulabha,

“Madam, the two shameless women were doing what a man and woman are supposed to do.”

Sulabha is flabbergasted by the women's insinuations. At an intellectual level, her education instinctively makes her see the two lesbian women as subalterns, no different from the other subalterns in the home. Yet, her confused demeanour makes it evident to the audience that she has never personally witnessed lesbian love at first hand. How could she? While male homosexuality in India has always been practiced in public arenas like parks and washrooms, and even on the street, female homosexuality has preferred to secretly express itself within the four walls of an apartment or a dorm room, which serve as an alibi. As Ashwini Sukthankar says in her Introduction to Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India (Penguin, 1999),

“Our status as myth means that many people truly believe we don’t exist, and it means inhabiting the domain of their ignorance, which is neither acceptance nor condemnation. It means being able to live together and spend time with each other, as long as the sexual root of the relationship is never discussed with anyone.”

Not content with assaulting the victims with foul language and demanding that they be thrown out of the home, the inmates then resort to violence. As their evening meal is being served to them in the community dining hall the next day, two inmates conspire to fling a bowl of boiling hot dal on one of the victims to scald her. The woman is in agony as a result of the vicious act. But no one comes to her aid. Her partner is pained by the attack, but there is precious little she can do. All the inmates seem to be of the opinion that the perverse woman deserves the punishment meted out to her.

Significantly, it is the masculine-looking woman on whom the boiling hot dal is thrown, while her feminine-looking partner is spared. This implies that to the inmates of the home, it is the masculine-looking woman who is the unrecognizable other. It is she who is seen as the initiator of the immoral liaison, and as the seducer of her petite feminine partner, who in appearance resembles all the other inmates.

The violent scene in Umbartha is one of the earliest and most graphic scenes of homophobia ever shown in Indian films. Later films that have had homophobic gay-bashing scenes include Ketan Mehta’s Holi (1985), Riyad Wadia’s BomGay (1996, based on my poems); Onir’s I Am (2010); and Karan Johar’s short Bombay Talkies anthology film, titled Ajeeb Dastaan Yeh Hai (2013). Of these, Umbartha is the only film to portray a lesbian gay-bashing scene.

BomGay (dramatic short by Riyad Wadia, based on poems by R. Raj Rao, 1996): VHS transfer frame grabs from scene showing gay bashing in public toilet (original celluloid version is lost).

What interpretation may one offer of Umbartha’s homophobia? To my way of thinking, the female inmates of the Sangamwadi home are co-opted by the patriarchy to such an extent, that they cease to be women and assume a figurative maleness that is revealed here in their point of view. Their point of view is no different from that of the film’s male director, Jabbar Patel, and its male screenplay writers, Vijay Tendulkar and Vasant Dev. The homophobia of the latter is grafted on to the former. I am unwilling to give the three men named above the benefit of doubt, as some viewers of the film, opposed to essentialism, may be inclined to do, arguing that in their depiction of the spiteful actions of the female inmates, the men are really cashing in on irony. This is because, to the best of my knowledge, all the three men identify as heterosexual, and are married men with children. It would have been different if a gay-identified man or woman was associated with the film.

What to me is ironic, however, is that the female inmates who assume a figurative maleness, as I put it, should perpetrate a violent act on the very woman with a masculine demeanour, where I would expect them to at least subconsciously identify with her.

The other aspect of the female inmates’ homophobia that I wish to comment on is their total inability to see the liberating possibilities of lesbianism, which, like feminism, is after all an ‘ism’. In other words, lesbian love is not merely about the gratification of sexual desire, but is also about female political bonding. This is what leads to the notion of political lesbianism, about which the female inmates of the home, the Superintendent Sulabha, as well as the home’s matriarchal director, also named Mahajan, are blissfully unaware.

If anything, it is the inmates of the home, rather than happily married mainstream middle class Indian women, who should be able to view lesbianism as emancipation. It would do well for the inmates to ask themselves why they were in the home in the first place. They were obviously there because they were uneducated, had no husbands, and thus no means of economic support, or if they were married, had husbands who had abandoned them, or may be had other women in their lives, as Sulabha’s own husband Subhash does. Destitution thus unites the women, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Actually, contrary to what I said above, Sulabha isn’t totally unaware of the feminist dimension of lesbianism. Perhaps in her MSW course, there was a Gender and Sexuality component. But she is up against an establishment that is highly hostile and unsympathetic. Thus, when Sulabha feebly attempts to take up the cudgels for the two unfortunate lesbian victims of the home, she is instantly snubbed by her director, who menacingly asks her,

“What are you trying to defend, Mrs. Mahajan.”