Fire is the first part of Deepa Mehta's Elements trilogy, followed by Earth (1998) and Water (2005). It is a gentle and yet powerful film which explores the roles expected of two Indian wives who live within the constrains of a tradition Indian family. It explores the way in which they learn to question their fate, by acknowledging their needs, their desires and their right to sexuality.
The film centres around the friendship which grows between the resigned Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the more questioning Sita (Nandita Das) and leads to a journey of self discovery, love and sexuality. And yet all of the believably contradictory characters have their own story and each is trapped within the constrains of expectation. Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi)) has married Sita to get his traditional family off his back but continues his relationship with Julie (Alice Poon) a frivolous and free Asian-Indian woman, and yet responds to Sita's bursts of strength with despicable arrogance and short-sightedness. Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), Jatin's older brother, who has appropriated his wife's body as a means to test his vow of celibacy, is a gentle and serene man who has never even thought of his wife as a human being. Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), the servant, represents another complex layer in the family's established structure which in itself could be the focus of a film.
Last, but definitely not least, is Biji (Kushal Rekhi), the bed-ridden grandmother who cannot speak but is witness to everything that happens behind closed doors. Biji's bell pierces through scenes as Oscar's voice smashes glass in the book the Tin Drum. These crazy, frightening, silent characters, heighten the manic and allow a guttural understanding of the unspeakable.
The variety of ways in which sex and sexuality are portrayed gives depth to the film and lays bare the power relationships, the identity struggles, and the frustrations at the heart of the family. Many have called Fire a lesbian love story, this is such an inadequate way of understanding the film and I was happy to read Deepa Mehta’s own comments: "Fire is not about lesbianism. ... In fact, one of the things that detract from the film is that really it is not fair to lesbians, because it shows that perhaps women turn to each other only if their marriages are bad. ... It is a film about loneliness. It is a film about the hypocrisy of our society today. It is a film about how women don't have choices in a patriarchal set-up. ... Fire is about a lack of choices. ... Every character in the film, whether male or female, is a victim of society's rules and regulations."
From external eyes, it is sometimes difficult to believe the truth and extent of the traditional constrains shown due to the very contrast between the social freedom lived by some characters, but any doubts ought to dispel when the reaction to Mehta's films is analysed: When Fire was first screened, Hindu fundamentalists attacked theatres which were showing it and soon it was removed from theatres in Bombay and New Delhi. Water would suffer worse a fate with a five-year pause in production due to riots, being finally released in 2005.
Mehta's film is a brave, bittersweet drama, which shows how people can grow wings and learn to fly. Her ability to capture everyday details, presenting them by baring all their intrinsic weight, provokes raw emotions of laughter and horror. Fire is a subtle and intelligent portrait of a society which is precariously balanced between the contradictory forces of past and future.