FIRE (Canada/India, 1996) **3/4 .
Written & directed by Deepa Mehta. Photography, Gilles Nuttgens. Production design, Aradhana Seth. Editing, Barry Farrell. Music, A.R.Rahman. Cast: Shabana Azmi (Radha), Nandita Das (Sita), Kulbushan Kharbanda (Ashok), Jaaved Jaaferi (Jatin), Ranjist Chowdry (Mundu), Kushal Rekhi (Biji). A Zeitgeist Release. 104 min. In English. Not rated.
A few days before I saw "Fire" (in December 1997) I watched on TV's "60 Minutes" or one of its clones a report on certain women - generally happily married loving mothers- who, one day, discover that they are lesbians.
In the bigger picture are women who are not, but become lesbians by necessity, to find affection and happiness long denied to them. This is what "Fire" is all about. It focuses on Indian women and is the third feature by writer-director Deepa Mehta. She was born in Amritsar (India), graduated in philosophy from the University of New Delhi, and emigrated to Canada in 1973.
"Fire" looks at a New Delhi family that is middle-class by Indian standards, dysfunctional by western standards but normal by many Indian traditional standards, and in the process of changing, by any standards. The aged mother, Biji, has been paralyzed and made mute by a stroke. Her middle-aged son Ashok owns a video store and a fast food place that is at street level in a house where the living quarters are upstairs. Ashok's younger brother, the westernized (in superficial ways and for the wrong reasons) Jatin, helps in the store. He often sells porno videos to schoolchildren. Ashok's wife Radha is played by a beautiful superstar of Indian movies. Then there's Mundu, the servant who shares in the cooking, cleaning and Biji-sitting.
A fourth member recently added to the family is the young, drop-dead-gorgeous Sita, Jatin's bride. In the clever, subject-setting opening scene at the Taj Mahal, we see that the marriage was arranged. Jatin's senior brother had told him something like "At your age, one should be married" and that was that. Conform to tradition at any human cost. Jatin doesn't give a hoot for Sita. He loves his Chinese mistress Julie, an entrepreneurial hairdresser who won't marry him. Sita is in for a miserable life.
She makes friends with Radha who is unhappy because she cannot have children. The doctors' explanation was "No eggs," which sounds like a grocery sign in World War II rationing. In Radha's male-dominated, traditional society, infertility is bad news both socially and as a deprivation of joy. Rhada's sadness is expressed in discreet ways.
Sita, who quickly learns of her husband's paramour, submits to deflowering many days after her wedding. The scene, like the rest of the movie, is discreet yet it feels like a rape. It's a matter of time until the lovely and simpatico sisters-in-law kiss, then progress (with utter film tact) to a stronger relationship. (The movie is big on the eroticism of foot massages).
The "affair" comes at no surprise. Both women are widows, not mere sports-widows as in North America, but love-widows. They do not "come out" but are brought together the way some affection-seeking, lonely boys and girls do in same-gender schools.
Radha has the additional misery of a husband who is thoughtful and decent, but who is a kind of mystic, and the prize pupil of a swami who may or may not be a phony. Ashok wants to reach a certain spiritual level by submitting to temptations and resisting them. To resist the lure of sex, he periodically calls his wife to his bed -and does nothing. They have not had sex for 13 years, which may be fine for him but not for Radha.
Ashok may be a good man, but when Radha starts flying with her own wings and he tells her the habitual "Come to the bedroom. I have to test myself," the shocking reply is "not tonight." Later he states that "Desire gives pain" and she counters "Without desire, life is not worth living." The sisters-in-law agree that men want to get pleasure but don't think of giving it. It's the new India's voice.
When Jatin learns of the two women's relationship, he goes into a smug forgive-and-forget speech, adds "but I won't stop seeing Julie," and launches into praises of Julie's looks. He tells Sita that she has two choices: divorce him and suffer the inevitable troubles of divorcees, or have a child. "What do you think?" "I think you are a pompous fool." Jati is turned on by this new independence of his "firecracker" wife.
The developments of the movie are connected rather heavily to symbolic flashbacks to Sita's childhood ; to a day of fast by wives, so that their husbands might live long (ironically, both women comply); to also ironical interludes, one a dream that seems to mock standard Indian films, the other a play of Lord/God Rama and his wife Sita's trial by fire, to show her purity. Concludes Rama:" You are pure --but I still have to send you in exile."
Small episodes, some subtle, others not, contribute to making this film a feminist manifesto. At the premiere in the International Film Festival of India, a man told the filmmaker "I'm going to shoot you, madam." The movie shocked many middle-aged males, yet according to Ms. Mehta, the "scandal" was not lesbianism but the feared independence of women. She adds that overall, women, young men and old men were enthusiastic about "Fire."
There is even brutally direct criticism of other aspects of India, by a Chinese immigrant who, during a meal with Jatin in a fancy restaurant, deplores having chosen India instead of Canada or Australia.
The film has an excellent score but some problems with its photography. Though much praised in some quarters, the camerawork suffers from what may be excessive purism. Probably bent on imparting a realistic look to a suffocating environment, it went to the extremes of avoiding reflectors and extra lights, with the result that some scenes are unnecessarily dark or murky.
This serious movie is dotted with comic relief, notably by the servant Mundu. Watching porno videos, he delivers a hilarious onanistic scene. He answers a milkman who told him "You look weak these days," with "Perhaps because you keep watering down your milk." But it is also the same Mundu who, dismissed for obscene behavior but terribly anxious to retain his job (no mean problem in India), spills the beans to his boss. This catalyzes the film's wrap-up with a too neatly symbolic twist and unclear non-closure.
The rhythm could have used more vigor, not to satisfy our western love of speed, but to save time for more development of characters, even though the statements of the movie about the old and the evolving India come through very clearly.
The language spoken is "Hinglish" -- that colorful English adapted to India and to local colloquialisms -- simply because it is the main language spoken by people of a status and background similar to the movie's personae.