Fire (1996 film)
|Directed by||Deepa Mehta|
|Produced by||Bobby Bedi
|Written by||Deepa Mehta|
|Music by||A. R. Rahman|
|Edited by||Barry Farrell|
Trial by Fire Films
|Distributed by||Zeitgeist Films|
Fire (Hindi: Phāyar फायर) is a 1996 Indian-Canadian romantic drama film written and directed by Deepa Mehta and starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. It is the first installment of Mehta's Elements trilogy; it is succeeded by Earth (1998) and Water (2005).
The film is loosely based on Ismat Chughtai's 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt). It was one of the first mainstream films in India to explicitly show homosexual relations. After its 1998 release in India, certain groups staged several protests, setting off a flurry of public dialogue around issues such as homosexuality and freedom of speech.
The film opens with young Radha sitting in a mustard field with her parents. Her mother tells her a story of a person who wanted to see the ocean; then she explains that sometimes one must learn to see some things (through her mind's eye) without looking.
The film flashes forward to Sita, a newly married young woman, trying to perceive some emotion from her husband Jatin. Jatin appears distant and shows little interest in Sita or in being married. Sita is given a perfunctory welcome by Jatin's family. Jatin is in a typical joint family arrangement. He lives with his older brother Ashok, his sister-in-law Radha, his invalid mother (Biji) and the family servant Mundu. Their apartment is on the second floor of a two story dwelling in a crowded marketplace in New Delhi. Ashok and Jatin run a small store (on the first floor) that sells food (for takeout) and rents videotapes.
Sita is gradually exposed to various difficulties. She is also in a typical arranged marriage, but she learns that Jatin married her only to put an end to Ashok's incessant nagging. Jatin continues to date his Chinese girlfriend. Sita does not rebuke him for fear that it may bring dishonour to her parents.
The rest of Jatin's home is not rosy either. Biji is paralysed and without speech after a stroke, and Sita and Radha must constantly attend to Biji (even her hygiene). Sita spends her days slaving in the hot and greasy kitchen, and she finds herself lonely and frustrated at night because Jatin is out dallying with his girlfriend. On the financial front, the store provides a modest income but their expenses are very high and they are unable to expand their business or buy a bigger home. Sita resignedly accepts these difficulties, but yearns to break out of this stifling and hopeless situation.
It is later revealed that Radha faces a somewhat similar problem. Many years ago, Ashok had come under the influence of Swamiji, a local preacher, who teaches that desires are the cause of suffering and must be suppressed. Ashok is completely taken by these monastic teachings and accordingly suppresses all his desires. He also donates large sums from the meager store income to treat the Swamiji's hydrocele condition. It is also revealed that Radha cannot bear children, due to an incurable ailment. The Swamiji, as per the strict devotional and spiritual convention, teaches that sexual contact is permitted only as a means for procreation. Accordingly, Ashok aims to stamp out all his desires and has not slept with Radha for the past thirteen years. He puts Radha through an excruciating ritual in which they lie motionless next to each other whenever he wants to test his resolve. Radha is racked with guilt over her ailment and driven to frustration by the ritual. She resigns to live out her life, but is unable to stop her growing sadness.
Radha and Sita go through the motions oscillating between their desires and disappointments. Radha, the older woman, remains bound by tradition and subdued into silence while Sita refuses to accept misfortune and wishes to break free.
One evening, shunned by their husbands, provoked by their (mutual) feelings and driven to desperation by their unfulfilled longings, Radha and Sita seek solace in each other and become lovers. Overjoyed at finding satisfaction in this unusual manner, they resolve to continue it in secret. They eventually realise their love for each other and they start looking for ways to move out and be on their own.
Things take a turn for the worse when the servant Mundu becomes aware of their relationship. When Radha reprimands him for masturbating to pornography in front of Biji, he warily reminds her that her own "hanky panky" is bad for the family. One day, Mundu causes Ashok to walk in on Radha and Sita.
Ashok is horrified. He is shattered when he finds this incident has stoked his own long-dormant desire. He nevertheless confronts Radha. Radha overcomes her subservience and pours out her emotions. Desire impels life, and she desires Sita because she desires to live. She pointedly suggests that if Ashok seeks to control desires then he should henceforth seek Swamiji's help and stop the ritual. Amid this argument, Radha's sari catches fire. Ashok steps out of the way and angrily watches her burn (for her sinful desires). Radha puts out the flames and recalls her mother's advice from when she was young. She can finally see her ocean. She leaves Ashok.
The film ends with Radha moving out and joining Sita.
- Nandita Das as Sita
- Shabana Azmi as Radha
- Karishma Jhalani as young Radha
- Ramanjit Kaur as Young Radha's mother
- Dilip Mehta as Young Radha's father
- Javed Jaffrey as Jatin
- Vinay Pathak as Guide at Taj Mahal
- Kushal Rekhi as Biji
- Ranjit Chowdhry as Mundu
- Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Ashok
- Alice Poon as Julie
- Ram Gopal Bajaj as Swamiji
- Ravinder Happy as Oily man in video shop
- Devyani Saltzman as Girl in video shop
- Sunil Chabra as Milkman on bicycle
- Avijit Dutt as Julie's father
- Shasea Bahadur as Julie's brother
- Meher Chand as Goddess Sita
- Bahadur Chand as God Ram
- Puran, Sohan Lal, Meher, Amarjit Chand, and Karahm Chand as 'Ramayan' theatrical troupe members
- Kabir Chowdhury as Boy in video shop
- Laurence Côte as French tourist at the Taj Mahal
Controversies and reaction
Fire was passed uncut by India's censor board (the Central Board of Film Certification) in May 1998 with a rating of Adult, the only condition being that the character Sita's name be changed to Nita. The film was first screened on 13 November 1998 and ran to full houses in most metropolitan cities throughout India for almost three weeks.
On 2 December, more than 200 Shiv Sanaiks stormed a Cinemax theatre in suburban Goregaon in Mumbai, smashing glass panes, burning posters and shouting slogans. They compelled managers to refund tickets to moviegoers. On 3 December, a Regal theatre in Delhi was similarly stormed. Bajrang Dal workers with lathis invaded Rajpalace and Rajmahal in Surat, breaking up everything in sight and driving away frightened audiences. Theatres in Surat and Pune stopped screening the film on the same day. When attackers attempted to shut down a screening in Calcutta, however, ushers and audience fought back and the movie stayed open. Twenty-nine people were arrested in Mumbai in connection with these incidents. Chief Minister Manohar Joshi supported the actions to shut down screenings of Fire, saying, "I congratulate them for what they have done. The film's theme is alien to our culture."
On 4 December, the film was referred back to the Censor Board for a re-examination. The Indian government was criticised for siding with the vandals. On 5 December a group of film personalities and free speech activists, including Deepa Mehta, Indian movie star Dilip Kumar, and director Mahesh Bhatt, submitted a 17-page petition to the Supreme Court asking that a "sense of security" be provided, in addition to basic protection, so that the film could be screened smoothly. The petition referenced articles 14, 19, 21, 25 of the Indian Constitution, which promise the right to equality, life and liberty, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of conscience, free expression of religious practice and belief, and the right to hold peaceful meetings.
On 7 December, Mehta led a candlelit protest in New Delhi with activists from 32 organisations against the withdrawal of Fire, carrying placards, shouting anti-Shiv Sena slogans and crying for the freedom of right to expression. On 12 December about 60 Shiv Sena men stripped down to their underwear and squatted in front of Dilip Kumar's house to protest his support of Fire. 22 were arrested and Kumar, as well as others involved in the production of the film were provided with police security.
Cinemax reopened screenings of Fire on 18 December, but a hundred members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vandalised posters at the Sundar Theatre in Kanpur despite the police commissioner's reassurance that protection has been arranged. Fire was re-released without cuts by the Censor Board on 12 February 1999. Theatre screenings were resumed on 26 February and continued without incident.
In the initial weeks following release, reviewers praised the film's explicit depiction of a homosexual relationship as "gutsy", "explosive", "pathbreaking". Following the Shiv Sena attacks on the film, prominent party members said Fire had been targeted because it was an "immoral and pornographic" film "against Indian tradition and culture." The lesbian relationship depicted in the film was criticised as "not a part of Indian history or culture." Other politicians of the Hindu right voiced fears that the film would "spoil [Indian] women" and younger generations by teaching "unhappy wives not to depend on their husbands" and informing the public about "acts of perversion." Speaking on the dangers of Fire, Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray compared lesbianism to "a sort of a social AIDS" which might "spread like an epidemic." Furthermore, Thackery claimed that the film was an attack on Hinduism because the protagonists were named Sita and Radha, both significant goddesses in Hindu belief, and that he would withdraw his objections to the film if the names were changed to Muslim names.
A statement issued from the Shiv Sena's women's wing said, "If women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse, reproduction of human beings will stop." Critics charged the Shiv Sena of committing "cultural terrorism" and of using the rhetoric of "Indian tradition" to protest images of female independence and suppress freedom of speech. "The justification for [Shiv Sena's] action... demonstrates that Indian 'culture' for the Sangh Parivar is defined essentially in terms of male control over female sexuality."
Gay activist Ashok Row Kavi criticised the Shiv Sena's protests as "gay-bashing" and disputed their claims that lesbianism was "against Indian tradition", indicating that homosexuality is in fact abundantly present in Hinduism and that the criminalisation of homosexuality was a legacy of British colonialism, heavily informed by Christianity. Pointing to evidence of lesbianism in Indian tradition, he said, "What's wrong in two women having sex? If they think it doesn't happen in the Indian society they should see the sculptures of Khajuraho or Konark."
Feminist critics of Mehta's films argue that Mehta's portrayal of women and gender relations is over-simplified. Noted Indian feminist authors Mary E. John and Tejaswini Niranjana wrote in 1999 that Fire reduces patriarchy to the denial and control of female sexuality. The authors make the point that the film traps itself in its own rendering of patriarchy:
Control of female sexuality is surely one of the ideological planks on which patriarchy rests. But by taking this idea literally, the film imprisons itself in the very ideology it seeks to fight, its own version of authentic reality being nothing but a mirror image of patriarchal discourse. 'Fire' ends up arguing that the successful assertion of sexual choice is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition—indeed, the sole criterion—for the emancipation of women. Thus the patriarchal ideology of 'control' is first reduced to pure denial – as though such control did not also involve the production and amplification of sexuality – and is later simply inverted to produce the film's own vision of women's liberation as free sexual 'choice.' (1999:582)
Whatever subversive potential 'Fire' might have had (as a film that makes visible the 'naturalised' hegemony of heterosexuality in contemporary culture, for example) is nullified by its largely masculinist assumption that men should not neglect the sexual needs of their wives, lest they turn lesbian (1999:583).
The authors additionally argue that viewers must ask tough questions from films such as Fire that place themselves in the realm of "alternative" cinema and aim to occupy not only aesthetic, but also political space (Economic and Political Weekly, 6–13 March 1999).
Madhu Kishwar, then-editor of Manushi, wrote a highly critical review of Fire, finding fault with the depiction of the characters in the film as a "mean spirited caricature of middle class family life among urban Indians". She claimed that homosexuality was socially accepted in India as long as it remained a private affair, adding that Mehta "did a disservice to the cause of women... by crudely pushing the Radha-Sita relationship into the lesbian mould," as women would now be unable to form intimate relationships with other women without being branded as lesbians.
Deepa Mehta expressed frustration in interviews that the film was consistently described as a lesbian film. She said, "lesbianism is just another aspect of the film...Fire is not a film about lesbians," but rather about "the choices we make in life."
In 2010, veteran film critic and activist Shoni Ghosh wrote a book named 'Fire: A Queer Film Classic' that studies in detail the movie as well the controversies ignited by the film. The book goes in detail to the situations that lead for the chaos as well the aftermaths.
|Fire: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack|
|Film score by A. R. Rahman|
|Recorded||Panchathan Record Inn|
|Genre||Feature film soundtrack|
|A. R. Rahman chronology|
The soundtrack of Fire was composed and performed by A. R. Rahman except for tracks "Ramayan" and "Allah Hu". "Julie's Theme" and "China Town" were added as bonus tracks and were not used in the movie. A. R. Rahman reused or reworked some of his acclaimed songs from Bombay.
|"Bombay Theme Intro"||Instrumental|
|"Radha and Sita Love Theme"||Instrumental|
|"Antha Arabikkadaloram"||A. R. Rahman|
|"Mundus Fantasy Part 1"||Instrumental|
|"Mundus Fantasy Part 2"||Instrumental|
|"Ramayan"||Instrumental (written by Ramayan Theatrical Group)|
|"Allah Hu"||Miraj Ahmed (written by Miraj Ahmed)|
|"Bombay Theme Finale Radha's Soul"||Instrumental|
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- Gopinath, Gayatri (2005), Impossible Desires (Book), Durham and London: Duke University press
- Jain, Madhu; Raval, Sheela (21 December 1998), "Ire over Fire", India Today, retrieved 2008-03-14
- Bearak, Barry (24 December 1998), "A Lesbian Idyll, and the Movie Theaters Surrender", New York Times, retrieved 2008-03-12
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