Nandita Das

[Film] Fire (1996)

Sita is a young woman living in modern-day Mumbai, India, who has just left her childhood home to enter into a traditional Indian marriage to Jitan, a man who succumbed to the union through family pressure. Jitan, however, decides to continue his bachelor ways by keeping his lover, Julie, in his life, much to the chagrin of his older brother, Ashtok.

Sita wants to make the marriage work, so she quickly gives in to Jitan’s habits, and soon discovers even more dysfunction within the family ranks. Ashtok and his wife, Radha, are also in a loveless marriage. Radha was deemed infertile 13 years ago, squashing any hope Ashtok had for a son to pass on the family line. Ashtok has since become disinterested in her. The family lives out their days attempting to find comfort in structure and patriarchal Indian traditions, while looking after their take-out food and video rental store, ignoring their palpable misery.

It seems everyone is accepting of their fate…everyone except Sita, who in her young wide-eyed optimism, can’t fathom a life devoid of happiness. Somehow everything has become a litany of duties. She tries to learn about being a good Indian wife from the senior Radha, who herself questions her lot. Sita and Radha become close as they commiserate over their household duties and collective loveless marriages. Continuously being denied any love by their respective spouses, they eventually find comfort in each other’s embrace… and bed. Their new-found passion breathed new life and optimism to such an extent that Sita and Radha make plans to cut their family ties to start a new life together. The family finds out about their relationship, and tries their damnedest to put a stop to it. How the film ends will indeed stay with you for a long time.

Sita and Radha discuss the future

Fire is written and directed by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, and is part of Mehta’s Elements series of films (Earth (1998) and Water (2005) succeeded it). The film is over 20 years old, and as one could imagine, a film dipicting a lesbian relationship caused much controversy globally in 1996. But, some critics also considered the film fearless and groundbreaking. I am not familiar with any of the actors, but I felt they were natural and passionate. I was moved by the complexity of the plot and I loved how exotic and different from normal Hollywood fare this well-made Indian film was. I also found it interesting how the family dynamic was as similar in India as it can be in Canada, which to me made Fire a relatable film.

Fire happens to be the first and only Bollywood movie I have ever watched (but not my last!). If you find Fire on one of the various media streams, be sure you check it out. It’s worth the watch.

3.5 / 5

Fire
Dir Deepa Mehta
Starring: Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das