Regent Releasing, 1996

Deepa Mehta

Starring: Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Karishma Jhalani, Ramanjeet Kaur, Dilip Mehta, Javed Jaffrey, Kulbhushan Kharbanda

Rated R, 83 minutes

Breaking the Chains
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, March, 1999


"Fire is a film about loneliness. It is a film about the hypocrisy of our society today. It is a film about how women don't have choices in a patriarchal set-up."
-filmmaker Deepa Mehta

Art can be ornamental or it can exist to increase awareness while being the catalyst for much needed social change. A great work of art should challenge its audience. Books such as Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth entertained while helping to awaken the masses to societal abuses.

Cinema can also accomplish this. A recent example is a new film from India by Deepa Mehta called Fire. I missed Fire when Hallwalls screened it as part of last year's Ways in Being Gay Festival and was pleased to find out that it is already available on video.

To state that Fire sparked controversy in its native country would be an understatement. Sold-out screenings of the film have sparked violence and protests throughout India, led by a traditionalist party known as Shiv Sena (perhaps their equivalent of our "Moral Majority.") And what is all the fuss about? The movie's plot explores two women trapped in loveless marriages who find fulfillment with each other. In a traditional Indian marriage, the woman is completely subserviant to her husband and so the Shiv Sena party calls Fire a threat to Indian culture and tradition. They further claim that there is no such thing as homosexuality in India, (there is, in fact, no word for lesbian in their language). Though Fire was passed for adults by India's censorship boards, the circumstances soon became ugly. To further inflame the situation, one of Fire's stars, (Shabana Azmi), is a member of the Indian Parliament.

Though the love that develops between the two women is a major plot point, Fire is about liberation and feminine emancipation. It breaks many taboos and attacks what the director feels is an antiquated and constricting culture. Nandita Das is Sita, a beautiful and romantic young Indian woman who has just married a handsome lout named Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi). Jatin is carrying on an affair with his Chinese mistress. He loves his mistress but she refused his marriage proposal because she wants to be more than just a "baby factory." Instead, Jatin marries Sita to placate his family and, of course, to provide children. Jatin ignores his lovely young wife and continues to tryst with his mistress.

Jatin's extended family runs a restaurant and video store, and they live in a small apartment upstairs. Feeling alone, Sita turns to her sister-in-law, Rodha (Shabana Azmi), for companionship. Rodha is also lonely and trapped in a barren marriage to Jatin's older brother Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda). Because she is unable to bear children, her husband is seeing a Swami in order to rid himself completely of sexual desire. Dutifully, she lays next to her husband when he wishes to test his self control, and the two have not had sex in over 15 years. Rounding out the dysfunctional household is a scheming manservant, and the siblings' mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi). Biji has suffered a stroke and cannot speak; she summons help and expresses displeasure by ringing a bell. Biji, naturally, disaproves of Sita's free-spirted ways and constantly rings her bell in disgust.

The subservience of women to their husbands permeates almost every frame of the film. On a certain holy day, both Sita and Rodha are expected to fast in order that their husbands may be blessed. As the folklore behind this ritual is told by a storyteller, Sita laughs and calls it ridiculous, (prompting Biji, of course, to ring her bell in anger). When the day has passed, Sita cannot be released by her husband from her fast because he is away from home seeing his mistress. Rodha breaks tradition and gives water to her thirsting sister-in-law.

As the film opens, Sita is on her honeymoon with Jatin. While visiting the Taj Mahal, she is excited while he leans bored against a doorway. Enthralled by this great symbol of a man's love for his wife, she asks her new husband if he likes romantic movies and he says that he prefers Kung Fu flicks. When she asks when he will love her, he snaps that they've only been married for three days. With husbands like these, it almost seems a foregone conclusion that Sita and Rodha would turn to each other to find tenderness.

While love quitely blossoms between the two women, each of the men are shown to be sexually dysfunctional. Jatin sees his mistress and rents porno videos to minors, Ashok self-righteously revels in his oath of celibacy, and the family's manservant masturbates to a porno film while Biji rings her bell in a frenzy.

The love scenes that sparked such outrage in India are actually very tame by American standards. The most "explicit" image is that of Sita's finger carressing Rodha's nipple. Their love scenes are beautifully and tenderly photographed, erotic and loving without even a hint of the prurient.

Fire boasts terrific performances from each of principals. It is also a beautifully photographed and colorful film that celebrates the locales and mythologies of India while attacking its patriarchal society. It is meant to be the first part of a planned trilogy that will someday continue with Earth and Water to represent three of the natural elements. Fire is a very important symbol in this lovely film - references to the myth of the Goddess Sita walking unscathed through fire to prove her purity are scattered throughout. (While viewing the film, I was painfully aware of a recent edition of Nightline that reported cases of Pakastanian husbands who have burned their wives with acid for alleged infidelity and how they escape the law because women are treated as possessions.) Myths and culture are woven through the intricate tapestry of Fire and those well-versed in the knowledge of Hindu themes will undoubtedly unlock many more of the riches hidden in this multi-layered film than I did.

Fire is probably not for all tastes, and it is not without its flaws. The overall seriousness is alleviated by ample amounts of humor, though some of it is a bit forced. Like many foreign films, Fire doesn't spoonfeed every detail to its audience the way that Hollywood movies do, and this might confuse some viewers, making it difficult to follow. Mehta's decision to film Fire in English is also not without its problems. Haters of subtitles can rejoice, but the thick accents often make sections of dialogue almost unintelligible. Nevertheless, the action moves along at a good pace and it is never boring.

Fire is at times difficult but it is also a very rich and fullfilling film, as well as a milestone for Indian Feminist, not to mention Lesbian, Cinema. Fire is unrated so you can probably forget about finding it your local Blockbuster Video. It can be rented however at Rainbow Pride, located in Buddies at 31 Johnson Park.




Reviewer's note, 2007: Interjecting a bit of autobiography and historical context here. In many of my older reviews there are references to these films being unavailable at Blockbuster Video. Times have changed, but in the 90s, that was the case. They were a "family store." Blockbuster's policy back then (since changed) of not carrying NC-17 or unrated films forced many filmmakers to emasculate their films to get an R rating so Blockbuster "the family store" would carry it. .I usually reported if the films were available for rent at Buffalo's two funkiest video stores - Mondo Video, which was owned by the film critic from Artvoice Magazine, M. Faust, and was the place to go to get the hard to find titles - and Rainbow Pride, a gay gift shop run by Frank Ball; he also rented videos. For years, his store was the front room in a popular gay bar, Buddies.

Anyway, when I wrote this review you could not find titles like these at Blockbuster. And I often ranted about it. I've left them in these reviews as I put them online because they are a kind of time capsule. Because early in the millennium there was a changing of the guard at Blockbuster. You could rent Queer as Folk there now! Their old policy of no gay films and no unrated films was gone, finished. And that was good news for filmmakers and film lovers everywhere. I even ended one of my columns with a public service announcement that Blockbuster changed its policies and now carried gay films. I'm not being coerced into writing this, I'm just being fair because that was a big turnaround. Of course it was also around the time I discovered and saw that I could rent almost anything from them. Foreign films, independents and of course queer cinema. This note is just to explain how times have changed (for the better) and it is much easier to find queer titles now, whether for rent or for sale. The internet of course got us out of the dark ages too.