estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Fire: women as authors and protagonists
Fire (1996) is a film by Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta, the first piece of her Elements trilogy, composed by two other features: Earth (1998) and Water (2005). The movie stars major actresses Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, both with a career in parallel India cinema. In particular, Azmi had already won four National Film Awards1 in the Best Actress category when she appeared in Fire. Differently, Das – also starring in Earth – found greater public recognition right after her participation in Deepa Mehta’s features.
Fire debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1996 but it was screened in India only in November 1998. In Canada, where the director moved in 1973, the movie was globally acclaimed and it was awarded at the Vancouver International Film Festival as Most Popular Canadian Film. Differently, the reception of the movie in Mehta’s home country was problematic: despite it was approved without any cuts by the Central Board of Film Certification 2, it caused some protests in different areas of India. Screenings of the movie were interrupted in Mumbai, Delhi, and Calcutta by the protests of the Shiv Sena, one of the most popular Indian right-wing parties. Protesters – mostly women – criticised the movie because of its portrayal of female homosexuality; in their view, Fire undermined the institution of marriage, thus threatening the reproduction of the human population. Following these protests, Fire was resubmitted to the Central Board of Film Certification, which, however, approved an uncut version of the movie for the second time.
The film focuses on two women, Sita and Radha precisely, living in the same household. Sita has recently married Jatin, who has no interest in his wife and rather keeps dating a Chinese woman, whom he was prohibited to marry by his family. Radha, on the other hand, has been married for several years to Ashok, Jatin’s elder brother. However, their union was put in crisis because of her infertility, whose discovery led Ashok to devote himself to the teachings of a preacher advising his followers to only have sexual relationships for reproductive purposes and to suppress all unnecessary desires. Dissatisfied with their respective spouses, the two sisters-in-law develop an increasingly intimate relationship, which will eventually turn into a passionate bond that they will try to hide from their family.
In this paper I will examine existent literature to determine how Deepa Mehta employed traditional modes of representation of Indian women in her feature. Following, I will focus on the genesis of the relationship between Radha and Sita, trying to determine whether it gives a correct perception of female homosexuality. I will conclude by noticing that Fire wrongly delivers the idea that its female protagonists develop romantic feelings for each other as a consequence of the dissatisfaction they experience in their respective heterosexual relationships.
Fire is not a proper Bollywood movie, rather placing itself in the context of Indian Parallel cinema3. Despite adopting traditional narrative tropes, the movie introduces some elements of innovation. This is evident in the fact that the two main characters are named after two major Hindu goddesses, Sita and Radha precisely, even though they do not correspond to female archetypes inspired by these two deities. In the movie, Sita is undoubtedly the element of the couple who is more conscious of the subjugation she experiences in her arranged marriage, which seems to bother her more than her husband’s extramarital affair. In this sense, she doesn’t meet the Sita-archetype of a loyal and devoted wife. Differently, the Radha-archetype contemplates a form of romantic love and marriage, in which both spouses are loyal to each other. However, in the movie Radha seems bonded to Ashok exclusively by marital duty rather than authentic affection. In this sense, we can say that Mehta employs Indian traditional cinematic elements, although she modifies them to obtain innovative outcomes to her story. By doing so, she manages to criticise issues such as arranged marriage, domestication of women, and oppressive religion by opposing them a narration of female agency and homosexuality.
In a reflection that refers to Bollywood but that can be easily applied to independent productions, Sharma and Savery (2016) maintain that the attempt to reconcile modern features with traditional values in Indian cinema may often bring to conflicting messages about characters opposing social norms4. Subsequently, women who assume anti-traditional behaviour « […] are often vilified and punished, or else they are reformed and made to appreciate the conventional duties of a wife ». This is partially the case in Fire, especially with Radha, who is left alone by her husband, when her saree accidentally catches fire at a moment when Ashok has already discovered her relationship with Sita. However, Mehta’s innovative ending overturns this paradigm as Radha and Sita manage to escape their familial subjugation to start a different life together.
Similarly, authors Sengupta, Roy and Purkayastha (2019) claim that in Hindi movies female desire is subordinated to patriarchal structures of power, which cannot contain its overtly modern articulation. For this reason, a woman’s dissent with imposed tradition is often considered as a signal of female “badness”. The authors indeed affirm that « […] female agency and expression of desire that attempt to defy the mantras of farz/duty and parivar/family are seen as deserving of castigation, punishing marginalization or re-integration into the family only after a neutralizing of their agency and assertiveness »5. Again, in this sense Fire is opposing traditional narrations: Sita, bearer of explicit dissent to traditional and religious values, escapes the punishment and re-integration trope as she avoids direct conflict with her husband by autonomously leaving the household. Thus, Fire reveals Mehta’s expertise in adopting and rewriting Indian traditional narrative tropes to deliver a message of female agency with successful consequences.
A misleading view on lesbianism?
Despite being innovative in its representation of female agency and bonding, Fire has not been unanimously praised. By analysing Sita and Radha’s relationship, some authors considered unsettling « the notion that these women get to explore their sexualities as a consequence of the unhappiness arising from their failed marriages »6. A problematic aspect of the movie consists thus in the fact that it seems to present lesbianism as a response to the neglect that both women experience in their marriage. This hypothesis may be confirmed by the ambiguous articulation of Radha and Sita’s feelings for each other. For example, at some point in the movie Sita tells Radha: « There’s no word in our language that describes what we are, how we feel for each other ». The inability to state that love is the feeling identifying their relationship might be a sign of the director’s unwillingness to make the legitimisation of lesbianism the main aim of her movie. In this sense, Fire might be considered a limitedly helpful contribute to the debate on homosexuality in India. In fact, despite showing a remarkable example of female agency, the movie’s main innovation consists in offering an alternative ending to a lesbian love story, which however is not completely positive. Indeed, as Kapur points out, « […] it is still a cause for concern that their [Sita and Radha’s] relationship survives only after it is displaced onto the cultural space of another ‘Other’ »7, meaning that the director allows the realisation of female homosexuality without, however, reconciling it with a familial context, thus providing a weaker contribute to the legitimisation of same-sex relationship in Indian society.
Transitioning towards innovation
In conclusion, Fire is undoubtedly innovative in its offering alternative developments to traditional Indian narrative tropes. This is evident in Mehta’s decision to not pursue the trope of punishment and correction imposed to women who oppose social norms. The director rather opts for a different ending, one where the two protagonists manage to escape an oppressive familial dimension to live together as a couple. However, Metha fails in correctly articulating the genesis of Sita and Radha’s relationship, suggesting that their lesbian awakening came as a consequence of their dissatisfaction with their respective husbands.
1 The National Film Awards are among the most prominent cinematic honours in India.
2 Basing on the guidelines expressed in the Indian Cinematographic Act (1952), the Central Board of Film Certification is an organ which has to examine and eventually censor movies destined to be screened in India.
3 A cinematic tradition that originated in India in the 1950s as an alternative to commercial mainstream cinema.
4 Sharma, R., Savery, C. (2016). Bollywood Marriages: Portrayals of Matrimony in Hindi Popular Cinema, Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture. London: Rowman and Littlefield.
5 Sengupta, S., Roy, S., Purkayastha, S. (2019). Introduction: Breaking Bad, Bad Women of Bombay Films: Studies in Desire and Anxiety. New York: Palgrave.
6 Sethi, S. (2019). Film Review: Fire – On Queering Love and Beyond. feminisminindia.com. Retrieved November 17, 2021. https://feminisminindia.com/2019/12/18/film-review-fire-queering-love-beyond/.
7 Kapur, R. (2000). Too Hot to Handle: The Cultural Politics of “Fire”. Feminist Review. No. 64, Feminism 2000: One Step beyond? Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Kapur, R. (2000). Too Hot to Handle: The Cultural Politics of “Fire”. Feminist Review. No. 64, Feminism 2000: One Step beyond? Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Sengupta, S., Roy, S., Purkayastha, S. (2019). Introduction: Breaking Bad, Bad Women of Bombay Films: Studies in Desire and Anxiety. New York: Palgrave.
Sharma, R., Savery, C. (2016). Bollywood Marriages: Portrayals of Matrimony in Hindi Popular Cinema, Heroines of Film and Television: Portrayals in Popular Culture. London: Rowman and Littlefield.
Sethi, S. (2019). Film Review: Fire – On Queering Love and Beyond. feminisminindia.com. Retrieved November 17, 2021. https://feminisminindia.com/2019/12/18/film-review-fire queering-love-beyond/.
Mehta, D. (1996). Fire. Zeitgeist Films.