Written and directed by Deepa Mehta, Fire (1996) is the story of two Indian sisters-in-law living in traditional marriages who fall in love with each other. Although it won numerous film festival awards when it was screened in the West, it was met with violent protests in India and has yet to be widely screened in that country.
The film opens with the arranged marriage of beautiful young Sita (Nandita Das) to Jatin, the younger brother of Ashok, who is married to Radha (Shabana Azmi), a woman who has long accepted the duties imposed on her by her traditional role as wife. Jatin and Ashok run a video store and restaurant, and when Sita moves into their joint-family life, she quickly learns that her marriage is not going to be the romantic fantasy portrayed in the Bollywood films she loves.
It turns out that Jatin is in love with his Chinese mistress, Julie, whose photo he carries prominently displayed in his wallet, and Ashok has devoted himself to a swami who teaches that “desire is the root of all evil.” Consequently, Ashok and Radha have been in a celibate marriage for thirteen years.
As Sita becomes a part of the household, her life comes to match the rhythms of Radha’s life, filled with work in the restaurant, caring for the elderly family matriarch, Biji, and staring out at the city from their rooftop balcony at night. The two women become friends, and Sita soon finds that she is falling in love with Radha. When she initiates a sexual relationship with her late at night while their husbands are gone, Radha—who is at first startled—soon reciprocates.
The awakening relationship between Radha and Sita encourages both of them to gradually change the way they behave at home, and to resist the traditional bonds of marriage that have restricted them both. Their relationship does not come without consequences, but Fire is in the end a hopeful love story.
Although the film mostly takes placein the family house, the film’s cinematographer (A.R. Rahman) has created a sense of beautiful spaciousness for Fire. It is simply a gorgeous film to look at, from the vibrant colors of Radha and Sita’s clothing to the simple fact that the two actresses portraying these women are absolutely stunning.
Beyond the surface beauty of the film, Nandita Das as Sita and Shabana Azmi as Radha are brilliant in their roles. Azmi perfectly evokes Radha’s subdued sense of tradition and growing amazement at her own sensuality, and Das does an equally good job of showing us how Sita’s playful nature translates into a will to make their lives better.
But although the film is excellent overall, Fire does not entirely succeed in evoking the heat of its title. The love scenes between the two women are absolutely beautiful, but lack a sense of desire—particularly in contrast to the few scenes between Jatin and his mistress. In addition, at times the dramatic storyline relies too heavily on reenactments of Indian folktales about women who are forced to walk through fire to prove that they are pure. This heavy-handed use of metaphor is unnecessary, particularly in combination with the actual fire that occurs at the end of the film.
Many early reviews of Fire noted that its message of female empowerment was dated for Western audiences, but this criticism misses the point: Fire is not about Western women. Sita and Radha’s attempts to change the way tradition limits their lives is inspiring because of the context in which they live. Their love story brings a very old but hidden history—that of love between two women—to life in a way that Western films about lesbianism cannot.
Because Fire, in the end, is not even necessarily about lesbianism. Both Sita and Radha acknowledge that there is no word in Hindi for their kind of love, and they do not perceive their relationship as a “lesbian” one. Their relationship is, simply, a relationship based on mutual love and attraction, and their determination to pursue that relationship in the face of a wall of tradition that denies those things even exist is indeed a wonderful thing.