Fire

Canada 1996

Reviewed by Rachel Malik

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Contemporary New Delhi. Young and newly married Sita comes to live with the family of her husband Jatin. The family run a busy take-away restaurant and video shop and Sita is soon busy helping with the business and taking care of her husband's elderly, invalid mother Biji. Sita is frustrated with Jatin who makes no effort at friendship or affection. She develops a close friendship with her sister-in-law Radha. Jatin spends most of his time with his mistress Julie while Radha's husband Ashok spends his evenings at religious meetings. Soon the two women become increasingly close and fall in love.

For a period, their relationship thrives undetected but they are discovered by Mundu, a servant. Radha discovers him watching pornography in the living room while the mute Biji looks on in horror. Mundu is humiliated and tells Radha he knows about her and Sita. Ashok insists Mundu should have a second chance but Mundu, determined on revenge, tells Ashok, who then discovers the two women making love. The two women confirm their plan to leave. Sita packs and goes but Radha is determined to speak to her husband first. In an angry encounter, Radha's sari catches fire and the room goes up in flames. As Sita waits, Radha appears in her burnt clothes, seemingly unscathed, and the two women are reunited.

Review

Ever since Princess Diana was photographed visiting the Taj Mahal alone, the building has become an ironic international signifier of romantic love. In Deepa Mehta's Fire, Sita, one of the film's heroines, makes a honeymoon visit there with her sullen husband. The tour guide's extolling of this ultimate expression of love and the couple's obvious unease are the first markers of the film's distrust of romance. Sita does find love - although it will be with her sister-in-law Radha rather than her husband.

"There is no word in our language for what we are," Sita says of Hindi, and this very silence is an opportunity. A patriarchy which so rigorously genders the division of work and leisure and presumes masculinity as the beginning and end of sexuality by that very fact also creates possibilities for friendship and love between women. While the film charts the difficulties of extended-family living, the household regimen also allows moments of privacy. When Radha's husband calls to her, she can linger a moment with Sita, knowing that he will wait (although surprised) for her to attend him. The two women erotically reinscribe an array of modern and traditional codes of the sub-continental feminine: Sita oils Radha's hair, Radha presents Sita with bangles, they sing karaoke versions of popular love songs, Sita in drag, in front of their mother-in-law Biji.

But here 'a secret love' is neither desirable nor possible: not desirable because their relationship leads them to challenge common-sense duty and obedience; not possible because entrenched inequality fights back, a process personified by the actions of Biji and the resentful servant Mundu. voyeuristic Mundu knows words to describe Sita and Radha - from the pornography he consumes in front of the traumatised Biji. It is he who tells Radha's husband that his wife and sister-in-law are lesbians, an act of bitterness which is also, however paradoxically, the act of a 'faithful' servant. And Biji knows too. Silenced by a stroke and abused by Mundu, she still maintains some authority: her bell must always be answered. Her knowledge of their relationship, in part the result of her forced education, also seems to issue from the keen powers of observation that arise out of women's oppression.

An intertextual play of references offers another means of understanding and possibly overcoming this patriarchal status quo. Hindu parables are enacted within the narrative of the film in a variety of idioms: morality play, soap opera, Bollywood. The testing of a mythical Sita by her husband the god Rama is the most repeated parable; and while Radha emerges from her trial by fire unscathed - the mark of her virtue - she is still condemned to exile. These narratives of female obedience and the realism of the film are sharply contrasted in a sequence which is repeated and expanded as the film progresses. We are shown a lyrical field of yellow flowers, the setting for another seemingly fantastical story that centres on the possibility of envisaging the sea. Simultaneously a memory, a fantasy and a vision of a possible future, this space is contructed by a different logic. Radha's literal trial by fire binds this symbolic narrative of freedom to the film's resolution. One of the most powerful achievements of Fire is to represent a form of desire which is not an escape, but a political challenge.

Credits

Producers
Bobby Bedi
Deepa Mehta
Screenplay
Deepa Mehta
Director of Photography
Giles Nuttgens
Editor
Barry Farrell
Production Designer
Aradhana Seth
Music
A.R. Rahman
┬ęTrial by Fire Films Inc
Production Company
A Trial by Fire Films presentation
Executive Producers
Suresh Bhalla
David Hamilton
Line Producer
Anne Masson
Associate Producers
Karen Lee Hall
Varsha Bedi
Unit Manager
Sanjay Malik
Story Editor
Susan Martin
Art Director
Sunil Chhabra
Costume Designers
Neelam Mansingh Chowdhury
Anju Rekhi
Wardrobe Mistresses
Payal Randhawa
Sagarika
Make-up Artist
Lizbeth Williamson
Hairstylist
Alexis Fernandez
Soundtrack
"Bombay Theme", "Ek ho gaye hum aur tum" both from the "Bombay" soundtrack" by A.R. Rahman; "Main hoon" by/arranged by Merlyn D'Souza, performed by Mehnaz; "Aa jaa zara mere dil ke sahare" by S.H. Bihari, Hemant Kumar, performed by Geeta Dutt, Hemant Kumar; "Om jai jagati" performed by Mr Pundit, Shubhojit Mahalanobis, Bajhir Alam; "Allah Hukh" performed by Miraj Ahmed Qawal
Sound Mixer
Konrad Skreta
Stunt Co-ordinator
Amin Ghani
Cast
Shabana Azmi
Radha
Nandita Das
Sita
Kulbushan Kharbanda
Ashok
Jaaved Jaaferi
Jatin
Ranjit Chowdhry
Mundu
Kushal Rekhi
Biji
Karishma Jhalani
young Radha
Ramanjeet Kaur
young Radha's mother
Dilip Mehta
young Radha's father
Vinay Pathak
guide at Taj Mahal
Alice Poon
Julie
Ram Gopal Bajaj
Swamiji
Ravinder Happy
oily man in video shop
Devyani Mehta Saltzman
girl in video shop
Sunil Chhabra
milkman on bicycle
Avijit Dutt
Julie's father
Shasea Bahadur
Julie's brother
Meher Chand
Goddess Sita
Bahadur Chand
God Ram
Puran
Sohan Lal
Mhere
Amarjit
Karam Chand
'Ramayan' theatrical troupe
Kabir Chowdhury
boy in video shop
Certificate
15
Distributor
Guild Film Distribution
9,717 feet
107 minutes 58 seconds
Ultra-Stereo
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011