Domestic upheaval ensues in Deepa Mehta’s Fire after Radha (Azmi), an emotionally repressed housewife caged in a traditional Indian household, falls for Sita (Das), her sprightly young sister-in-law. Both women find themselves victims of a tradition-bound society, one that lends unquestioned impunity to its males no matter how oppressive or unfair their behavior. In Radha’s case, it means living out her life in abject and sexless servitude to her husband, Ashok (Kharbanda)–a born-again Hindu of sorts, devoted to his swami and to the rigors of his draconian moralism and self-imposed celibacy. Still just a young bride, Sita chafes at her role of the meek wife to Jatin (Jaffrey), a two-timer, torn between what is expected of him–namely to get married while young and bear children–and his own adoration of his Chinese mistress, Alice. While Jatin’s story is given short shrift and his characterization borders on the buffoonish as does Ashok’s, whose uptight appeals to “duty” and “control” cohere into a caricature of the hidebound Hindu, Mehta’s script shines when focusing on Sita and Radha. This is their story after all and Mehta’s approach to them feels tender and honest as the women discover their love and desire for each desire. Fire’s attitude to lesbianism–a theme that drew ire among India’s fundamentalists at the time of its release–is tasteful, reined-in without feeling restrained. After the secrecy of their affair is threatened, Mehta follows Radha and Sita’s journey towards liberation with a steady, sure eye. While she leaves Jatin’s storyline dangling, her resolution to the women’s ordeal feels compassionate and realistic. It gets us angry, frustrated, and in awe of all those among us who dare to break free of the bonds that enslave. In that and through its tight ensemble of terrific performances (particularly its two luminous leads) Fire lights its spark beautifully. This is the first part in Mehta’s Trilogy of the Elements whose subsequent installments are Earth and Water.
Directed by: Deepa Mehta
Screenplay: Deepa Mehta
Cast: Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi, Ranjit Chowdhry, Javed Jaffrey, Kushal Rekhi, Khulbhushan Kharbanda, Alice Poon