Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) : A Movie on Same Sex Desires,Much Ahead of Its Time

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Bold and ahead of its time romantic drama burns Dominant ideologies around same-sex desires with subtle references to mythology 

Yesterday, I revisited the 1996 Deepa Mehta film “Fire” starring Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi in lead roles. I wanted to like the film and rave about its brave strides combined with Deepa’s brilliance as a storyteller but something seemed off about it.

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Societies have always been driven by its stories, myths and legends which ultimately become a part of our culture and we embrace it unquestionably. Which is why this Deepa Mehta film “Fire” which revolves around two women named Radha and Sita, famous characters in Hindu mythology, becomes an opposing voice to the norms that come with any culture. Radha, played by effortless Shabana Azmi, is a subservient wife who has accepted the norms and customs of her environment. Her inability to produce a child had left her desolate and lifeless by the hands of her husband. She wants to be loved and taken care of but never dares to speak out loud.  Radha has lost the fire of desire inside her over the years. Shabana channels this longing for love and intimacy in her character with great precision and expertise.

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Sita, on the other hand, is feisty and knows what she wants. She is the one full of fire and doesn’t shy away from questioning the status quo. In one powerful scene of the film, Sita calls her husband, Jatin, played by the dashing Javed Jaffri,  “a pompous fool”. These words infuriate him and he slaps her after which Sita slaps him back, intimating that this Sita is not here to be a slave of her husband contrary to the mythology. Nandita plays this character with sincerity if not perfection (a point I will come to later).

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The two women, deprived of love and desire, find solace in each other and fuel the fire within them. Deepa takes multiple potshots at religious stereotypes around physical desire, patriarchy, male hegemony and dominant ideology that suppresses same-sex relationships and also makes sure that none of this feels contrived. Deepa never uses long lectures to call out these issues instead she uses moments like one where Sita is frantically cleaning the blood stains right after intercourse while her nonchalant husband sleeps at the side. 

But, what does feel contrived is the bond between the two women. There is no chemistry between the protagonists even in their lovemaking scenes. The romance and the dialogues between the two lack depth. The problem with Nandita Das’s portrayal is that she seems confused about how the characters should be. It seems like she is refraining from immersing herself into the character. Unlike Shabana’s where there is a gradual growth in her character, Nandita’s Sita has a sudden growth. She turns from a timid young bride to a feisty gregarious young girl in no time. In many of her scenes you can clearly see tangible effort Das is making to channel the exuberance that is required of her, which is why by the end of the film you don’t feel anything about her character. One aspect that often seems anomalous is reducing female emancipation to sexual liberty. 

There is a major role of Ramayana in the story development and the agni pariksha (fire test) constitutes the final sequence. But, here the agni pariksha is for Radha in front of her husband Ashok played by the brilliant Kulbhushan Kharrbanda, which could have looked stagy but it instead to one’s surprise was natural and fitted into the story. 

Fire was the first of Deepa’s element trilogy succeeded by “Earth” and the Academy Award Nominated “Water”. The movie was a path-breaking step towards starting conversations around LGBT rights in India. The film enlightened minorities on how what was considered a sin as propagated by the dominant group which in this case were Cis-het.

The depiction of Ramayana, a husband telling his spouse the role of wife and the karwa chauth for husband’s longevity are the set of rules and customs that Mehta subtly constructs in the film. These rules build the social structure in which Radha and Sita have to live while secretly finding the agency of their surreptitiously budding romance. At one point, the house-help tells Radha that women can’t leave husbands as the marriage is permanent, substantiating the presence of a social structure that can’t be breached. Unlike Sita, Radha has long accepted this way of living dictated by the dominant ideology where female desires are forbidden and are no more alien to her. Sita is Mehta’s representation of dissent and resistance.

At one point, Sita says, “somebody just has to press my button mark tradition and I start responding like a trained monkey”. Or take this scene in the first 10 mins, where Sita, constrained in her saree gets inside her room, takes off the fabric and wears trousers while looking in the mirror and ravishing her beauty.

In Ramayana, to check Sita’s purity, her husband made her go through the fire atonement. The fire did not catch her because she was pure, an indication of being untouched by another man. Deepa also utilise this one chapter from the mythology and seamlessly weaves into the narrative that it doesn’t looked forced. Such use of myths and legends are very common in her style of storytelling. I do recommend her 2008 film ‘Heaven on Earth’ which was stood on the similar pillars besides being a totally different story. 

Reception

It was the first Indian film to explicitly portray a lesbian relationship. In 1996, CBFC passed the film with an Adult certificate with a minor change in the name of Sita to Nita, as Sita has a religious value in India. At that time, homosexuality was criminalised in India and was seen as an unnatural act. When this movie was released, many Shiv Sainiks stormed into the cinemas and vandalised the property. Theatres were forced to shut down and remove the movie. The then Maharashtra CM Manohar Joshi supported the protests and slammed the movie saying the movie is “alien to our culture”. 

Hence, multiple requests for police protection for the smooth release of the film were ignored. The distributors were therefore coerced to remove the film from the theatres. Fire was then re-released 3 years later in 1999. 

20 years later, India is now celebrating movies like Ek ladki ko Dekha Toh Eisa Laga and Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhaan with Homosexuality decriminalised. We can proudly say what Fire presented through the story of Sita and Radha was a counter-hegemonic discourse and generated an alternate view for the marginalised. It did try to shift the mainstream bellwether around desires and female sexuality which was previously used as a tool to titillate the audience. A lot of queer feminists argue the existence of failed marriage as an aspect for the same-sex romance between the two women to blossom. In an interview, Nandita Das herself accepted this flaw but called to at least appreciate the film as the first step towards a greater cause which I agree with. 

Despite its many flaws in terms of story-telling and character development, I urge you to have a look at Deepa Mehta’s Fire.

Image Source – Indian Express

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