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Fire is a fascinating anomaly. It's an Indian feature written and directed by a woman, Deepa Mehta; she lives and works in Canada; and her subject is one of India's many gender-related taboos: lesbianism. In spite of its explicit treatment of the affair of two oppressed wives, Fire attracted little notice during production because the censors were too busy trying to stop Mira Nair's lurid (and quite inferior) Kama Sutra.
Director Mehta had to wait until the film's showing at an Indian film festival for the full fireworks. The reaction of some male members of the audience was so violent that the police had to be called. "I'm going to shoot you, madam!" was one response. According to Mehta, the men who objected couldn't articulate the word "lesbian"— "this is not in our Indian culture!" was as much as they could bring themselves to say.
It isn't only the tangible pleasures of a lesbian relationship that created such heated reactions, though that's certainly the most obvious reason. This beautifully shot, well-acted film is a powerful, sometimes hypnotic critique of the rigid norms of a patriarchal, post-colonial society that keeps both sexes down. All of Mehta's characters are trapped in their own lives, but two of them find a way to escape by discovering who they really are.
The film opens with an image of a family—father, mother, and daughter—sitting in a vast, bright field of yellow flowers. The mother recounts a parable to her daughter about a group of people living in the mountains. "They had never seen the sea," she says, "though they wanted to see it. They were sad because of this. 'Don't be sad,' an old woman says, 'what you can't see, you can see—you just have to see without looking . . ." This gorgeously idealized image, which recurs throughout the narrative, is the director's poetic tableau of the seductiveness of "seeing"—i.e., discovering one's true nature and choosing to live authentically, no matter what the cost.
The daughter in the image is a very young Sita (Nandita Das), now a modern woman who's become part of a troubled petit-bourgeois family in New Delhi through an arranged marriage. Her equally frustrated husband Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi) prefers his Chinese girlfriend, who gets her kicks by making him lick her toes. Jatin's brother, the head of the household, is Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda), a middle-aged celibate who spends most of his money and time on a guru who teaches that sexual desire is evil. Radha (Indian superstar Shabana Azmi) is his traditionally-minded wife. She silently cooks, cleans, and endures cruel bedroom rituals where Ashok asks her to lie next to him so that he can test temptation. (He never touches her.) A treacherous servant, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), and Ashok's mute, paralyzed old mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi) complete this grim portrait.
Sita's arrival brings a modern sensibility into this moribund group and pushes it toward a long-overdue collapse. She refuses to go along with the family's unspoken plan—that she produce children to occupy her time in a loveless marriage. "This duty thing is overrated," she tells a shocked Radha. Eventually she draws Radha out of her shell, and the two of them find in each other what their husbands refuse to give. Their relationship progresses while their uncomprehending husbands watch, the men in fact unwittingly feeding the affair by keeping the women in the domestic sphere and in each other's company. During a picnic, Sita slyly offers to massage Radha's feet. Ashok smiles stupidly, unaware of what lies behind this simple act, and says, "I'm lucky to have such a family." The kitchen, normally a major zone of oppression, becomes a cozy space for their love, and one in which tradition is turned on its head. While they're cooking, Radha explains that men eat black pepper on their wedding night "for better performance." Sita asks, "What about brides?" Radha says they eat green cardamom "for fragrance" and pops one of them in Sita's mouth. Sita moves close to her and asks if it's working.
Meanwhile, the household is falling apart in every possible way. Sita and Jatin have a slapping contest; Radha refuses to automatically acquiesce to her husband's perverse demands; and she catches the servant Mundu nervously masturbating in front of a porn video called The Joy Suck Club, with the mute Biji watching in horror in the background. The latter scene is one of several black-humor touches that nicely modulate the director's polemic. In another funny scene, the clueless Ashok solemnly explains why he has to give so much money to his guru: "he has to have an operation . . . one of his testicles is too large for his loincloth."
Contrasted to the violence and dark humor is Sita and Radha's loving alliance, which persists and becomes quite brazen, a fact that nevertheless only Mundu notices. Sita draws her strength from the image of the flower field that opened the film and continually reasserts itself as a symbol of her hope. Radha draws her strength from Sita, and clings to their relationship in spite of Mundu betraying her to her husband.
If all this feminism and lesbianism and attacks on the status quo weren't enough to unhinge male audiences, surely the tragicomic presence of Biji would be. She's a potent symbol of an impotent Old India—wizened, mute, helpless, carefully dressed and powdered each day, and carried around the room with a ridiculous little bell in her hand, which she can ring to indicate distress or need. Biji is the pitiful, absurd form that tradition takes when a vital modern woman like Sita arrives with new ideas.