‘Fire’, Deepa Mehta’s 1996 directorial, opens with a young girl Radha being told a story as she sits in a lush field: “A long time ago, there were people living high up in the mountains. They had never seen the sea… And this made them feel very sad. Then an old woman in the village said “Don’t be sad. What you can’t see, you can see. You just have to see without looking.”” When asked if she understands the meaning of this brief story, little Radha utters a sincere “No”. At first, quite like Radha, I didn’t understand either.
The film progresses, centred around a family of six: a grandmother who is lovingly called Biji (Kushal Rekhi), a house-help and Biji’s caretaker Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), and two married couples. The older couple are Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), and the younger are Ashok’s sibling Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) and Sita (Nandita Das). The stellar cast, as I discovered, does justice to every scene of the movie.
Within a matter of minutes from the movie’s beginning, we see Mundu carrying Biji to her room, where he sits her down and begins masturbating to songs on the television. The decrepit and mute Biji protests silently. We then learn about Jatin’s Chinese girlfriend Julie whom he had wanted to marry. Julie, however, didn’t want to become a “baby-making” machine and had refused his proposal. HOW. DARE. SHE. Anyhow, Jatin’s family forcefully marries him to the unsuspecting Sita, whom he proceeds to cheat on with Julie.
All this while, Ashok is shown to be blindly devoted to his spiritual guru, Swamiji. Ashok’s wife, Radha, has a barren womb. She asks Ashok if he would want her the same way as he does now if she could bear his fruit. “No... Perhaps it was my destiny; a sign to seek union with the universal truth. And each day Swamiji helps me come closer to that… By helping me, you are doing your duties, my wife.” Brava, Ashok. Brava.
Man, the film portrays broken homes, crumbling marriages, and twisted love. Well, patriarchs controlling women, their lives, and their bodies. To sum it up: the perceptions are wife: serves husband and takes care of the house, and husband: does whatever the hoot he wants. Starved of love, choices, and their whole beings, Sita and Radha find love, compassion and intimacy in each other.
In the 35th minute, Radha consoles Sita who has recently discovered Jatin and Julie’s affair. In a sisterly embrace, she comforts Sita. When they pull their bodies back, Sita holds Radha’s face with both her hands and kisses her on the mouth. In the next scene, Radha is seen touching her lips, standing in front of a mirror. This is the beginning of what blossoms into pure, unfettered love between the two.
The director’s strategic decision to intersperse the everyday life of the household with scenes of Radha and Sita growing closer is bold in its implication. Studied today as a pivotal point in the feminist discourse in India, the film shows the women’s ‘transgression’ not as aimed against patriarchy, but a courageous move to discover themselves; the protest transmogrifies from their journey of finding love in each other. As they grow closer, they become bolder. Drawing faith from their love, they refuse to sleep with their husbands after they have been together.
Nearing the hour mark at the 55th minute, Sita poses Radha a question after having spent a night together. “Did we do anything wrong?”, she asks. After a pregnant pause, Radha replies: “No.”
As the movie draws to a close, Radha catches Mundu masturbating in front of Biji. Mundu proceeds to blackmail Radha that he’d tell everyone about her and Sita. Ironic, how this jerk professes ‘shame’; he sees the women as the shame of the family when Jatin and Julie’s affair continues quite boisterously. In the same vein, male dominance oozes from the screen in scenes where the men force themselves on their wives. A nonchalant Jatin tells Sita how Julie’s mouth is like a “rosebud”, and how he wouldn’t stop seeing his mistress. He gives Sita the option of leaving his home disgraced as a divorced woman or making a baby with him which would keep her occupied and happy. How very nice of him, eh?
Mundu, the character that he is, tells Ashok about Radha and Sita. To make things worse, Ashok spots the women together. He confronts Radha and commands her to come to their bedroom; he needed to “test” himself again. When Radha refuses, he tells her it is her duty as his wife. Radha says she has already served her penance and was going to leave with Sita. In the argument that ensues, Ashok shoves Radha, who was working in the kitchen. Her saree catches fire. At this moment, I thought Radha dies; the ominous theme made me conclude she is swallowed by the flames. However, she is only injured and proceeds to leave the house once and for all. She meets Sita at the mosque that they had visited in the nascent stages of their relationship. The penultimate scene of the film is that of little Radha who defocuses her vision and is now able to see the ocean.
All in all, the film touches taboos like one would touch tap water. And I love it!
The camera work throughout the film is crisp, giving the audience lucid visuals in a most straightforward, organic way. The scenes themselves are beautifully crafted so as to retain and portray the sheer rawness of the story. Despite the scenes and themes being beautiful of themselves, I found a disconnect between subsequent shots. I found the scenes did not string together as well as they could’ve to make the film more impactful. The movie was action-packed, just not the adrenaline-rush-physical-action kind. Rather, the window-breaking, fire-setting type, you know? Moreover, the primary language used in the film is English, which could have been a barrier in the dissemination of the film’s message in the Indian context.
Fire, controversial as it was, sent a ripple through India at the time. Topics such as homosexuality and even the sexuality of women, for that matter, weren’t broached in film in the India of 1990s. A spirited discussion of these issues even in academia would come long after. In that sense, the movie was a harbinger of hope. And so it has remained till date. Aside from the aforementioned issues, the portrayal of masturbation, women’s agency over their bodies, and partial nudity are things that Indian cinema rarely, if ever, broaches even today.
Mehta did a brilliant job of setting into action discussions that are continuing decades after the film’s release. Her having named the protagonists after revered Hindu goddesses was a bold move, to say the least. One of the multiple themes that run parallelly through the film was the interpretation of the Ramayana. In this religious, mythological Hindu text, Sita plunges herself into fire to show her husband, Ram, that she is pure. In the movie, Radha survives when her saree caught fire. She and Sita both come out proud and courageous after the metaphorical ‘fire’ that they were subjected to.
The movie, which was passed uncut by the censor board at the time, went through a lot: posters were torn, theatres were stormed, rioters ran wild, and screenings were stopped. Film personalities and free speech activists submitted a petition demanding a ‘sense of security’ for the screening of the film. The writer and director, Mehta led a candle-light march to express dissent. After a year of stopped screenings, Fire raged free, uncut and unstopped.
So, why are we talking about a 25-year-old film today? To contextualize the beauty of cinema in bringing to the fore issues that are turned a blind eye to, even today. For all the progressiveness, the mainstream film scene in India has seen very numbered works of art that deal not just boldly but responsibly with the issues of sex, sexuality, sentimentality, feminism of the everyday, and women being themselves, for themselves. In the India of today, where every view that is different is considered opposing, we need Fire to flame the smouldering embers, to develop a collective consciousness that questions and stirs shit up.
If you’ve made it this far, do watch the movie. It is accessible here.
This piece has been written by Kushagra Jajoo, a 22-year-old going through a period of colossal unlearning, for The Night Owl.