I watched the 1996 Canadian drama Fire by Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta after having long heard of its taboo nature, based mainly on its depiction of lesbianism. And while not a silly film – such as the softcore When Night Is Falling or the horrid Hollywood 'Hook'em' Brokeback Mountain – Fire is nowhere near a great film, either.
As for the lesbianism, there is very little skin and the 'love story' is rather demure. On the other hand, there is far too much radical Feminist (capital F) ideology that lowers the intellectual argument of Mehta's film – the most obvious being that Fire follows the line that all men are scum who use, abuse, neglect, and/or degrade women. Compounding matters, the two wannabe lesbians, Radha (Bollywood star Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), are drop dead gorgeous; they're hardly 'real-world' lesbians along the lines of an Indian Andrea Dworkin, Rosie O'Donnell, or Ellen DeGeneres.
But back to point one: of the four major male characters in the film, not one is portrayed in a positive light. Mehta's script is straightforward and slight, as she makes little attempt to add depth to her characters. In fact, almost all the subtlety she employs can be attributed to the excellent acting of the two female leads. Mehta also shows a lack of understanding when to use – or not to use – symbolism.
For instance, in this 'coming out' story we see the main tale, set in mid-1990s India, interpolated with flashbacks to the Radha's childhood, with her sitting in a beautiful field of flowers with her mother and father. Her mother tells her to see the ocean, even though they are hundreds of miles away from it and the young girl has never seen it. And so, throughout Fire the young Radha keeps saying she cannot see the ocean until, naturally, at film's end, when she decides to leave her husband and family for Sita. The final flashbacks inform us that little Radha can now 'see' the ocean. Yippee, but wholly predictable. Given that water, oceans, and waves are some of the oldest forms of lesbian symbolism going, and given how telegraphed the flashbacks are, this shows Mehta a) has no sense of symbolism and metaphor, and b) no sense of how to deftly employ said techniques.
Here is the Fire narrative summarized: Radha is a barren wife to a local middle class merchant named Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who, in response to her inability to reproduce, has taken a vow of celibacy that has lasted thirteen years. He is also studying to be a swami, a guru, or some sort of shaman. He is portrayed as cruel because he wants to occasionally test his ability to withstand sexual desire with his wife by simply laying next to her. Now, this may be asinine, but in no way is he a bad man. Radha, for her part, shares equal blame in their sexless marriage, since she has gone along with it. After all, she is barren, not frigid, and the script makes no mention of any male impotence.
Anyway, the family owns a convenience store that sells groceries and videos. His younger brother, Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi), is newly married by arrangement to Sita, a free-thinking total babe. Jatin, however, still adorns his room with Bruce Lee movie posters. Additionally, he fools around with his Chinese immigrant girlfriend Julie (Alice Poon), a foot fetishist who refused to marry him, all the while dreaming of moving to Hong Kong to become an actress and be discovered by Hollywood. Her father, whose family had relocated to India after China's Cultural Revolution, is a cruel and bigoted man who loathes the country and its people.
The fourth despicable male is the family's lone employee at the store, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), who gets his kicks by masturbating to Jatin's porno videos (a part of the family's off-the-books income comes from renting these films to prepubescent boys) while in front of Jatin's and Ashok's elderly, post-stroke mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi). The scenes where Mundu masturbates are the funniest in the film, especially when, in Indian accent, he shouts, 'Oh, give it to me, Baby!' (It should be mentioned that the bulk of Fire is in English, with some minor subtitled scenes when Hindi is spoken.)
Mundu's fun ends when Radha catches him jerking off in front of Biji, but he insinuates he knows of her lesbian affair with Sita. This affair blossomed after Jatin's neglect and disdain for Sita, who refuses to get pregnant by a man she does not love. The lone time we see them have sex (the lone heterosexual act), it is a loveless affair: after shooting his load, Jatin rolls over to sleep, telling Sita not to worry about the blood from her hymen. The film's stark contrast between the results and aims of heterosexual and homosexual relationships is yet another of the misleading clichés and biased political stances taken by Mehta. In other words, all things gay are good, and all things straight are not – even as the reverse stereotype is despised by proponents of gay rights.
Eventually, Mundu seeks revenge by tracking down Ashok, who is horrified to find the two women together. Even the mute Biji shows contempt, by spitting on her daughter-in-law. During an argument, where Ashok tries to show his sexual passion, Radha's sari catches fire near the stove – another blatant use of bad symbolism as it hearkens back to an earlier enacted street play wherein the goddesses Sita and Radha discuss purging by fire. Then, we cut to the end, where the two women meet in a rainstorm.
Although Fire is not as overtly preachy and hammy as Brokeback Mountain, it is far too suffused with politics to approach greatness. Deepa Mehta, for example, makes excuses for its adulterous lesbians, just as Ang Lee's film makes heroes out of lying, low-life bastards. While Jatin is certainly a fool and cheater, and Sita owes him no allegiance, the same cannot be said of Radha, for Ashok is certainly a devoted and loving husband. If she was not getting what she wanted, it was her right and duty to speak up and demand change, or leave with honor. His response to her barrenness may have been wrong, but it was not accomplished without her complicity.
In that sense, Radha is the film's actual villain, for Jatin is a letch utterly void of depth while Mundu is an insignificant little bug. Radha, however, has the ability to think and choose. She does not merely fall into her relationship with Sita, she chooses its deceptions over her first allegiance to her husband. If she wanted out or change, she should have spoken up – the energy and will she displays in leaving him could have been displayed earlier within her marriage. Thus, she is an agent of the ill that befalls the family, not a victim like the naïve and forcefully betrothed Sita.
The other aspects Fire are well done, such as A. R. Rahman's score and Giles Nuttgens' cinematography, but nothing that approaches greatness. The DVD, put out by New Yorker Video, has the 108-minute version of the film, and is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There is no audio commentary, but included are a theatrical trailer, cast profiles, and production notes, in addition to a documentary on the controversy the film caused in India. All in all, it shows Indian culture in a very puerile light.
Aside from its objective artistic flaws, Fire also suffers from an insular take on Indian culture. Non-Indians, will fail to understand non-contextualized political points; thus, the film's political relevance fizzles. The best example is Sita's and Radha's names being taken from Hindu goddesses – Sita was purged by fire, though in the film Radha has that role; that's a point at which some Indian critics have lashed out, but it all seems silly to foreign ears.
Ultimately, what causes the otherwise solid Fire to reach – at best – the level of passable mediocrity is its inherent artistic flaw: a screenplay devoid of well-rounded characterizations but full of political impositions. Fire, in fact, is hardly worth a second viewing, save for glimpsing the two gorgeous lesbians. Not that that is a bad thing, of course, but why not try Penthouse, instead? At least there you won't be subjected to inane political proselytizing.
Fire is the first of a trilogy – Earth and Water are the two follow-ups, neither of which I've seen, yet. Thus, whether or not there has been a genuine upgrade of Mehta's art is something I can't tell, but there is potential here. It's just that Mehta's eagerness to make a cogent statement so overwhelms her desire to make an enduring, universal film, that Fire ends up failing. Rein that eagerness in, and Deepa Mehta has the makings of an artist of consequence. I'll be watching.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Fire (1996). Dir. / Scr.: Deepa Mehta. Cast: Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Jaaved Jaaferi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Ranjit Chowdhry, Kushal Rekhi, Alice Poon.