Sapphic Cinema: “Fire”

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Hello and welcome back to Sapphic Cinema, back from summer hiatus to bring you the latest in reviews of movies from twenty years ago.

Nearly all the films we’ve discussed in this column, from campy comedies to art house dramas, have one thing in common: they consider themselves to be capital “I” Important. In some ways that’s a fair assessment, since in the historically parched lesbian media landscape, even the most brackish water is vital, life-giving stuff. But precious few films have as much right to call themselves Important as Deepa Mehta’s 1996 landmark picture, Fire, the first in her landmark Elements trilogy.

fire1

 

Fire is a film that can and should be judged on its own cinematic merits, but I beg you not to rob yourself of the opportunity to hear about its production history, full of delightful tidbits such as the fact that some initial screenings were stormed by religious fundamentalists violently opposed to the film’s message. “Brave” is a word that gets thrown around the cinematic community nearly as often as “important,” and it’s usually used to describe actresses above a size two filming a nude scene, but Fire took real risks with the careers and even safety of the people involved, and it’s impossible to read about its story without re-framing your conception of what truly daring art can be.

Anyway, don’t take it from me; go to the Wikipedia page.

But on to the story, which takes place in New Delhi, in the middle class home of a joined family. And that family is THE WORST.

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Ashok and Jatin are brothers–Ashok is the obsessed disciple of a swami with giant testicles (IT’S NOT FUNNY IT’S VERY PAINFUL) and Jatin is the obsessed disciple of his girlfriend Julie (SHE’S JUST SO PRETTY AND SPECIAL). They live with their mother Biji, who was rendered mute by a stroke but still manages to be a bitch, and their servant Mundu, who is like Wormtail from Harry Potter if he had a constant boner. They are all horrible people, and arguably the film’s greatest weakness is that our hatred of them keeps it from being a nuanced drama where everyone’s needs and point of view must be weighed evenly.; it’s simply too delightful to watch the these horrible people suffer.

But there are two lights in the home of this family: Radha, Ashok’s dutiful wife, (Shabana Azmi, whose eyes can only be described in terms of vastness: oceans, galaxies), and Sita (Nandita Das, who provides so much of the fire for which the film is named; she just crackles with it).

Radha and Ashok have been married for over fifteen years, but when they learned that Radha couldn’t have children, Ahok ceased to perform his sexual duties. Now he just “tests his faith” by forcing Radha to lie beside him in bed until he can pray his erection away. Obviously, for you and I the prospect of never having sex with Ashok is preferable to the alternative, but Radha lives in a society where a woman has virtually no value except as a wife and mother, so her self-esteem is pretty much shattered and her lady garden has gone tragically to seed.

Sita, meanwhile, is the newest addition to the household, via an arranged marriage to Jatin. At the beginning, she’s determined to make the best of the situation, and dares to hope that Jatin might turn out to be her Prince Charming. But those dreams die five minutes after the wedding, when Jatin is like “look, I came here to chew gum and talk about my true love, Julie, and I have a lifetime supply of gum.”

fire3 I KNOW YOU WANT UNDER THIS TURTLENECK, GIRL.

So we have two unhappy marriages under the same roof. There is also a third variation on this theme: Biji and Mundu. Mundu is supposed to take care of the the infirm old woman, but instead he just puts on porn, which he forces her to watch while he masturbates.  He is also secretly in love with Radha, which we know because he carries around a photograph which he has helpfully altered to express his feelings.

fire4 DID I MENTION THIS WAS A HORROR MOVIE?

With their husbands busy seeing to their own sexual and spiritual needs, Radha and Sita are thrown  together to cook, care for the home, and run the family’s restaurant/video rental establishment (out of which Jatin illegally rents pornography to children, ensuring that the next generation has even worse notions of female agency). Sita is understandably displeased with her situation, and Radha is sympathetic. But Sita, being a few years younger, has an idea that would never occur to her duty-bound sister-in-law: do something about it.

One night, while Jatin is out with Julie, Sita decides to get the attention she’s been craving from the only source at hand: Radha. And this too could be construed as a weakness; Sita and Radha don’t fall into each others’ arms out of irrepressible desire, but the neglect of their husbands. Certain feminist critics have found fault with this for its apparent moral teaching that men shouldn’t neglect their wives or they’ll turn into lesbians, and have accused the film of reducing female agency to sexual desire. But to those critics, I say three things:

  1. HAVE YOU EVER DONE ANYTHING ONE TENTH AS BRAVE AS DEEPA MEHTA MAKING THIS MOVIE? DID YOU KNOW THEY BURNED HER IN EFFIGY? EVERYONE WHO HAS NOT BEEN BURNED IN EFFIGY SIT DOWN.
  2. That critique reeks of the kind of hand-wringing “but what if they think we’re LESBIANS” bullshit that is one of the chief irritants in mainstream feminism.
  3. While I too worry about Radha and Sita’s economic agency, the title of this film is “fire,” and it is very deliberate in stating that passion is the fire without which no freedom is possible. To paraphrase En Vogue, “free your orgasm and the rest will follow.”

Anyway, Sita lunges at Radha’s mouth, which feels pretty out of the blue, and Radha initially rejects her. But then she looks around her house and her city and eventually the entire Indian subcontinent and realizes she isn’t going to do any better, and she climbs into bed with her sister-in-law. It is reasonably hot, even if it does fall into the “silk curtains and vague closeups” school of lesbian love scenes.

fire5IF ONLY JATIN’S PORN PROVIDED US WITH A BETTER GROUNDING IN HOW TO DO THIS.

For a while they sneak around and no one is any the wiser (because Ashok and Jatin LITERALLY CANNOT CONCIEVE of their wives having lives or desires apart from them), but they get careless when they put up on a drag show for Biji.

Soon, Mundu catches wise to their love affair and, tormented by jealousy, turns them in to Ashok (don’t worry, it doesn’t work out great for him).

Ashok finds himself turned on by the knowledge that someone is having sex in his house, but graciously forgives Radha on the condition that she never do it again. Sita, meanwhile, runs away leaving Jatin to his precious Julie and begging Radha to follow. But she has to have one more confrontation with her husband.

Every time I get to this part of the movie, no matter how many times I see it, I brace myself for the worst. If this was any other film, by any other director, the tragic ending of this story would write itself. And indeed, Radha and Ashok spar over the nature of desire, whether it is a distraction from true enlightenment or the divine spark itself. In the course of this fight, Radha’s very own sari catches on fire, and Ashok walks away to let her burn.

But that is not the end, because Radha is able to rush out into a quenching rainstorm and in to the arms of her beloved. Their fates–how they will make a living, how they will come to new understandings of their roles, culture, and histories that honor their freedom and fire–remain question marks. But the fact that they deserve a chance to figure it out remains as Brave and Important in 2016 as it was in 1996.

The Breakdown

Sex Scenes: One and a half because STUPID ASHOK HAS TO WALK IN AND RUIN THE SECOND ONE.

How many times have you seen it, Elaine?: Oh like twelve, realistically.

Musical number: Oh yeah. Nandita Azmi in a backwards baseball cap is <fire emoji>.

Moral of the story: Give Deepa Mehta enough money for all her future projects.

Eventual fate of central couple: I wanna say they are still in the food and videotapes game. But now they only rent feminist porn.

Next week: To celebrate the onset of autumn (and Emily Blunt’s face) we shall be watching My Summer of Love.

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