Unveiling the Flames: An Analysis of Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ (1996)

“There’s no word in our language that can describe what we are, how we feel for each other.” As we celebrate Pride Month, let us revisit “Fire,” one of India’s earliest queer films, and delve into the controversies surrounding it and the film’s inherent beauty and queer identity.

Introduction

‘Fire’ by Deepa Mehta, played in 1996 at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), is an Indo-Canadian romantic drama featuring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das as its primary characters, Radha and Sita. It is the first part of Mehta’s Elements trilogy; it is followed by Earth (1998) and Water (2005).

The film is one of the earliest portrayals of homosexuality onscreen in India and the first to depict a lesbian relationship. It delves into complex themes of patriarchy, societal expectations imposed on women, and the suppressed desires and unspoken yearnings experienced by women. It sparks necessary discussions about the oppressive nature of orthodoxy and highlights the need for women’s desires to be acknowledged and heard.

Unveiling the Flames: An Analysis of Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ (1996)

Image Source: Cinedu

Controversies

First released in India in 1998, the film was banned from commercial theatres due to its portrayal of a lesbian relationship. After widespread protests and attacks on the film, Fire became the subject of criticism from influential political figures, who labeled the film as “immoral and pornographic”. Additionally, the portrayal of a lesbian relationship in the film received more criticism with the aggressors claiming that it “went against what Indian history and culture believed in”.

Rebellion, Freedom, and the Patriarchy:

Struggling to sustain their dutiful obedience to tradition and the patriarchy, two young women bravely defy societal norms and explore their love and desires for one another. Deepa Mehta describes the film as a movie about loneliness, and the hypocrisy of our society today. She describes it as a film about how women don’t have choices in a patriarchal set-up.

Though the love between the two women is a major plot point, it is also about liberation. Nandita Das portrays the role of Sita, a recently married bride, whose husband Jatin (portrayed by Jaaved Jaaferi) fails to express affection towards her and remains involved with his girlfriend, Alice, on the side. Radha, played by Shabana Azmi is unable to give birth and is portrayed as a ‘barren’ woman. Her husband Ashok (played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda), Jatin’s older brother, is heavily influenced and blindly devoted to a Swamiji who teaches him about celibacy as a way of life, something he then imposes upon Radha, restricting her sexual identity and freedom.

The movie depicts broken households, failing marriages, and the oppressive influence of patriarchy on women. Women are expected to adhere to customs while their husbands freely pursue their own desires. Burdened with responsibilities and deprived of love and joy, these women seek comfort in each other’s companionship. As they spend more time together, they defy the demands of tradition and their husbands, refusing to comply.

Even as their relationship with one another quietly flourishes, the men in the film are all revealed to be sexually dysfunctional. Ashok self-righteously enjoys his vows of celibacy, Jatin sees his girlfriend often and rents pornographic DVDs to minors, while the family’s manservant masturbates to a pornographic film, and Biji, the mother-in-law, now partially paralyzed due to an accident, frantically rings her bell calling for someone to help. Even as the manservant is caught, Ashok decides on behalf of the family to give him another chance.

The family only breaks apart as Ashok discovers their secret and cannot let go of his traditional ways and continues trying to force them on Radha. The two women then leave the house to go start a life of their own, together and finally happy.

Revisiting Tradition:

There are scenes in the film referencing ancient traditions and molding them into Sita and Radha’s story. When told the folktale about Karva Chaut fasts, Sita ridicules the story but on the day of the fast, she isn’t able to break her fast because Jatin is out with his mistress. This helps form a bond between Radha and Sita when she has to help Sita break her fast. There is also a brilliant comparison between Radha and Sita from ‘Ramayana’ where they reference her Agni Pariksha in how Radha comes out unharmed after her saree catches fire, as she did no wrong, and committed no sins.

Conclusion:

The movie provokes crucial conversations on the need for women’s desires to be acknowledged and heard by depicting a lesbian partnership and defying repressive norms. Despite controversy and restrictions after its debut, “Fire” continues to make a vital contribution to Indian film by highlighting how crucial it is to constantly challenge social norms and bring awareness to pressing concerns.

Ratings and Reviews:

IMDB: 7.1/10 (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116308/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1)

Rotten Tomatoes: 89% (https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1095795-fire)

EMEA Express Rating: 8/10

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