I am in school, the consequence of which is that I write a lot of papers. I'm relatively old-fashioned in that I like to hand in hard copies of my work instead of emailing them to the professors. Usually when I get a paper back, it has comments written on it. Things like: "good point," "yes, this is exactly what I was hoping you would pick up on," "I'm not sure I agree with you," "go further with this," and so on. In a queer studies class, we screened Deepa Mehta's 1996 film, Fire, and were asked to write a short reaction paper to it. When I received my paper back from the professor the following week, it had no comments written on it. I kept reading and there was nothing. Finally, at the end of the paper the professor had written, "Publish this." Understanding that there's little market for thousand word reactions to sixteen year old movies, I thought I'd post it here. If you haven't seen the film, it's a remarkably powerful and enjoyable piece of work, and if you care to read my reaction to it, please enjoy.
Dheepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) not only stretches the boundaries of a heteronormative family structure, but also challenges the conventional and often rigid gender roles of an Indian traditional/cultural narrative. At the film’s start, in what we might expect to be among the most thrilling moments of a young bride’s life, Sita and Jatin are on their honeymoon at the Taj Mahal. They are listening to a guide tell the great love story that led to its construction. Sita asks, “Don’t you like me?” Even if the concept of an arranged marriage is something that we, as modern Westerners struggle with, we understand that something is wrong here. Mehta highlights the indifference with which the young groom treats his new bride, and this immediately creates a sense of discomfort as we watch this new relationship unfold.
When Sita commences married life in the home of her new in-laws, matters get more complicated, and the family configuration becomes more complex. Radha is unable to have children, and has devoted her life to her husband, the care of his elderly, disabled mother, and the family business. Jatin spends his nights with his mistress, while Ashok spends his nights with his swami – the younger brother yielding to earthly temptation as the older practices resistance to it.
Despite her unhappiness and her deepening feelings of isolation, Sita adapts to this new arrangement as best she can. In lieu of being a devoted wife, she becomes a useful member of the family by assisting in the family business. In the absence of their husbands, the two women discover a commonality between them; based in their isolation and repressed desires. The relationship between the two women develops slowly, but as Sita begins to open up to and trust Radha, both women begin to experience what they’ve been missing from their respective husbands; a loving and intimate interchange. Seemingly, within the confines of the traditional heteronormative family structure, this masquerade might have been able to continue and their secret remain hidden had it not been for the two secondary, yet pivotal characters: Mundu, a devoted, sharp-eyed, and compulsively self-pleasuring servant, and Biji, a sympathetic, yet somewhat tyrannical, watchful, bell-ringing mother-in-law, whose bed is situated at the center of the house.
The moments of tenderness and sensuality that we see between Sita and Radha are little respites of erotic verse in the greater family drama. At one point, the family is at a picnic in a flowered field, similar to the one in Radha’s childhood memory, and Sita begins massaging Radha's feet. Ashok encourages his younger sister-in-law to continue massaging his wife's feet, as it is her duty to serve her elders. This act of “duty” becomes one of the most erotic moments of the film and is in full view of the family. This small act is stunning in that it shows Sita’s defiance as she flagrantly takes advantage of family traditions to mask the two women’s nontraditional connection.
Even as Westerners, with perhaps limited knowledge of Vedic scriptures, Mehta ensures that we are aware of the parallels she is trying to draw to the scriptures by having Ashok make repeated reference to them, and having scenes from religious dramas accompany the action throughout the film; on the television, at the temple, etc. Like characters from one of the books of the Ramayana, the members of this family play out a morality drama that explores tenets and human values, and poses questions about the behavior of the ideal wife, husband, brother, servant, and king.
Throughout the film there is a lot of talk about the testing of one’s purity through fire. This is, of course, spoken about in the context of a religious parable, but Mehta brings this parable to life as Radha’s purity is literally tested by fire. Her purity remains intact as she walks through its flames to be ultimately delivered into the arms of her lover. That the couple’s outcome remains unclear is welcome refreshment. Too often we’ve seen troubled same-sex lovers breach traditions and go against customs only to perish for their transgressions, or possibly suffer for the good of future generations. In Mehta’s drama, however, the outcome is completely ambiguous. In deciphering the moral of Fire as a religious parable, beneath its surface the film is not so much a tale of lesbian love as much as it is about the bonding of two neglected and isolated people, the sharing of their sensual expression, hope, and the prisons that can be constructed by culture and traditions.