Self-assured is probably the best fitting word. I watched her on an interview on YouTube, elegantly seated on a beige couch, crossed-legged, her fingers transcribing in action, what she spoke in words. Deepa Mehta the Indo-Canadian filmmaker calls herself a cultural hybrid and says she’d rather be known as a citizen filmmaker of the world than be questioned on which nationality she belonged to more.
From her elementary series, I happened to watch fire and water. Fire was undoubtedly one of the best movies I’ve seen by far.
Fire stars Nandita Das (Sita) and Shabana Azmi (Radha) as two Indian housewives. The women find in each other a connection that they themselves find hard to comprehend. Both the wives are stuck in a loveless arranged marriage which pushes them to seek solace in each other. By the end of the first half of the film, the warm and caring relationship between the Sita and Radha start to ‘dangerously’ tip into a passionate romantic link. Sita’s character begins with her playing the role expected of a newlywed Indian bride. When she begins to get entwined in an amorous relationship with Radha, Sita’s character opens up to reveal itself as a woman who unabashedly claims her right to love and intimacy. To me, the beauty of her character lay in her courage to openly address her vulnerabilities.
Radha, on the other hand, was a woman who’d adapted to a sex-less marriage. Her husband remains her friend and they share a warm and beautiful friendship. Nevertheless, Radha feels disconnected from herself and the world. Lack of sex and bodily warmth from her husband seems to steal her off a certain amount of happiness which she, as a woman, seemed to have no right to demand. Initially, Radha fears Sita. She finds her questions and childish ways unnerving. Her fear slowly churns into fascination, creeping towards a desire to bury herself in Sita’s body. She finds in Sita a courage that she failed to muster up for herself. Although towards the end of the movie, roles reverse and it is Radha’s character that holds the seams of their relationship together.
So, why was the movie named ‘Fire’?
The Hindu tradition speaks of ‘fire’ or Agni as God playing a significant role in an Indian, Hindu household. God Agni is constantly present in the house, like a watch dog. Agni is referred to as the purifier who stands witness to the chastity of women and accordingly decides their fate. In the Indian epic Ramayana, Sita – Rama’s wife who was forcibly taken away from her husband, upon her return to Ayodhya proves her chastity to the kingdom by performing the “Agni- Pareeksha”. This is a test where the accused is made to enter the fire and if she emerged alive she would be considered pure. Sita emerges victorious in this test and Rama accepts her. Similarly, in the film Fire, when Radha’s saree catches fire and yet she comes out alive which goes on to prove that what Radha did, didn’t seem immoral. A desperate Radha, in a blackened saree, kajal smudged face manages to drag herself into Sita’s waiting bosom. Thus by not killing Radha, Agni aligns itself and finds a purity in the relationship between the two women, simultaneously rejecting the ‘morally’ correct and institutionalized relationship between the women and their husbands.
The next idea of fire rises in the two characters. To me, it seemed like Sita and Radha both had a fire in them that burned with two different kinds of tensions, nevertheless finding in common the same fury.
Sita a young girl, indignant and charming, houses a fire that is at its fiercest rising. Within her, lies a flame ready to embrace or scar, depending on who approached it and with what mindset. She writhes with the heat of a young woman craving for sex and love.
Radha, on the other hand, represents the dying embers. She knows her fate or is rather living it. She has accepted it and yet she only needs one drop of kerosene to relight herself and burn with a sort of passion that she herself never knew she could.
Finally, there is the obvious depiction of fire that lies in the searing desire between the women. A desire, that sparks to life when Sita in a spontaneous moment, turns a perfectly platonic hug into a kiss that sets ablaze a myriad of emotions between the women.
Many critics have categorized Fire as a movie about lesbians. But the director rejects this claim, saying “I love the film Fire. I am proud of my film. The questions you raise prompted by your middle-class upbringing forces me to defend Fire. This is a situation I do not like at all. I am not obliged to defend anything in the film Fire. The question here is not whether one chooses to engage in homosexual and heterosexual relationships or whether one chooses to engage in only heterosexual relationships. The question is the necessity to choose a life of dignity and self-fulfilment.
To me, the passing of the Agni Pareeksha is one of the most significant moments in the film. It tells the tale of two women who manage to flee from a spiritually and emotionally bankrupt entanglement into one that fiercely knits them both together as one.
Post release, Fire created an uproar in India. The on-screen display of sexual feelings, which was tame by western standards, raised an extreme reaction from Hindu fundamentalists. Members of the BJP Party attacked and looted theaters in Delhi, Bombay, and several other cities. The press embarked on a battle between pro-Mehta and anti-Mehta supporters. The threat of violence hung in the air. To this Mehta’s reaction was such –”I did have supporters, but they, too, were intimidated and threatened. A group of doctors and lawyers in Bombay decided to put up posters around the city defending me. But no one in Bombay—a city of 11 million—would print the poster. They finally had to go all the way to Madras to find a printer who would take the job. It was that scary.”
For me, the movie left me in a sort of daze where I struggled to grasp a sense of what I was feeling. My young body and mind went through a roller coaster of emotions a few hours after the movie. Love wasn’t enough suddenly. Putting my feelings down to words on paper felt silly. I wanted to write my thoughts on shoulders, palms, and lips.