Two women, married to cruel husbands, find solace in each other. Deepa Mehta’s Fire finds moments of black comedy in a bleak situation. She excoriates a culture that demands selfless devotion from the women it abuses. The film inspired violent protests from the very hypocrites it denounced.
Let’s take a look in a spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Tradition
Scene One: A House in Delhi.
SITA (an extrovert): Why don’t you like me?
HEDONIST BROTHER: I only married you because I couldn’t marry my mistress. Now shut up and pop out a baby.
RADHA (an introvert): You’re lucky. The doctor’s say I can’t have babies. So, my husband won’t touch me.
RELIGIOUS BROTHER: My swami says sex is for producing children. Go play nursemaid to my mother.
MOTHER: (I cannot speak. I ring a bell when I am unhappy. Which, in this family, is often.)
Scene Two: The Story of the Ramayana
GROSS SERVANT: You’re named after a Goddess. Sita was accused of adultery. Her husband made her walk through fire to prove she was pure. The fire did not burn her. But he exiled her anyway.
SITA: What a jerk.
RADHA: She was devoted.
SITA: Devotion is overrated. (Kisses Radha.)
Scene Three: The Story of Karwa Chauth
SITA: I’m thirsty. Why must we fast today?
RADHA: A loyal queen pulled a hundred needles from her husband’s body. A maid pulled the last two from his eyelids. Her husband placed the maid upon the throne. But the Queen fasted for 24 hours to prove her devotion. The husband cast the maid aside and took back his wife.
SITA: Another awful story. This culture has turned us women into puppets.
(Radha and Sita sleep together.)
Act Two: Rebellion
Scene Four: A Day to Themselves
HEDONIST BROTHER: I’m off to see my mistress. She’s prettier than you.
SITA: You’re a pompous fool.
(He slaps her. She slaps him back. He forces a kiss on her.)
RELIGIOUS BROTHER: I’m off to see my swami and reach enlightenment.
RADHA: Good luck with that.
(The husbands leave. Radha and Sita dance together.)
MOTHER: Ring Ring Ring.
Scene Five: Betrayal
(The Gross Servant watches porn and masturbates in front of the Mother.)
MOTHER: Ring Ring Ring.
RADHA: What are you doing!? You’re fired!
GROSS SERVANT: Then I’ll tell your husband about your hanky panky.
RADHA: He put his desires above all else. Am I the same?
(The Mother spits at her.)
RADHA: Who asked you?
Act Three: Escape
Scene Six: A Fateful Night
(Religious Brother catches Radha and Sita in bed.)
SITA: I’m glad he caught us. Let’s run away together.
RADHA: You go ahead of me. I need to say goodbye.
RELIGIOUS BROTHER: How dare you make me horny when I’d given up desire!
RADHA: A life without desire is no life at all.
(Religious Brother struggles with Radha. Her sleeve touches the hot stove and catches fire. Her husband rescues his Mother and leaves her to burn.)
Scene Seven: A Street Corner
(Sita finds Radha laying against a building.)
SITA: I worried this film was going to kill you off.
RADHA: Well, I’m burnt. And we’re homeless. But we’re free of our husbands so… ambiguously happy ending?
The Show Goes On
Ten minutes into the screening [in Dehli], Sainiks, led by Jai Bhagwan Goyal, drove out the audience, vandalized the theatre and raised slogans threatening anybody who attacked Bhartiya sanskriti…. When the right-wing Bengal Provincial Hindu Mahasabha arrived at Chaplin theatre in Kolkata, they were met by a wall of men and women who told them politely that the show would go on.The Indian Express, 2016
[T]he Shiv Sena’s women’s wing declared: “If women’s physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse. Reproduction of human beings will stop.” Jokes Mehta: “I never thought my film would help solve India’s population problem.”Time Asia, 1998
The film was inspired by the short story, The Quilt, published in 1942. The author, Ismat Chughtai, was put on trial for charges of obscenity. The court found her innocent as there were no obscene words in the text. The same sex relationship was only hinted at.
The film makes the relationship explicit. Conservatives responded harshly. The film was called an attack on marriage, religion and decency. Right wing groups attacked cinemas and protested against a politician who defended the work. But their behavior met with opposition from growing feminist, LGBTQ and anti-censorship organizations. Stars Shabana Azmi (Radha) and Nandita Das (Sita) continued to work as artists and human rights activists. On the film’s 20th anniversary, Das expressed disappointment that Indian cinema hasn’t produced more films of its kind. “Why hasn’t there been 20 more Fires?”
The film won 14 international awards. Reviews were mixed. Writer and director Deepa Mehta made it the start of her “elemental trilogy” alongside the films Earth and Water. Her films continue to explore aspects of Indian society. Though her controversial reputation forced her to film several works outside of India.
I found Fire an enjoyable character study. Radha and Sita’s relationship grows from sympathy to friendship to love in subtle and heartfelt ways. Their co-stars balance the comedy and menace of the self-pitying husbands. Even the silent, suffering mother has hidden depths. I recommend giving it a watch.