There are some films I watch where I have to struggle to find information and reviews. As soon as they are gone from the screens (not to mention movies from the 50s or 60s!) it’s like you are unearthing archaeological artefacts. With Deepa Mahta’s Fire (1996) however, there was so much to read that my eyes still ache from screen reading! The film itself is partly drowned in the avalanche of political and religious controversy which it created. It’s thus impossible to speak about the film on its own, as if it held an independent cinematographical status. It’s strange (or perhaps not) that some other movies, which tackle seemingly as controversial issues, have not sparked such furore. I’m thinking of Nishaant, or Parshuramer Kuthar. What’s special with Fire is that it’s mainstream cinema, with well-known actors. The fact that Shabana Azmi plays the lead role was certainly very important. Not only does she play her usual best (as we shall see), but she’s an icon of Indian cinema, a leading Women’s rights activist, and so naturally she carries a lot of the film’s publicity on her shoulders.
What is Fire about? The Shiv Sena, who vandalised the theatres where the movie was being shown back in 1998, and many commentators say it centres on lesbianism; yet Deepa Mehta herself has repeatedly said that no, “Fire is not a film about lesbians. But now they can talk about any aspect of the film. I just don't care... I didn't make Fire for the section of audience who can't understand the film and just talk about sex; there are audiences in India who will understand Fire. India is not a monolithic society. Fire is about choices, the choices we make in life which may lead to alienation. By the bisexuality theme in the film, I have just shown an extreme choice.” (Link) It’s difficult to say that the movie isn’t “about lesbians”, because the two main characters display this sexual penchant. “Fire”: the name of the movie indicates that it is indeed about desire and love, the fire within the body which keeps it warm and radiant, and makes it tender and beautiful. On the other hand, of course the film isn’t only about lesbianism. It’s about Indian women’s desires and need for fulfilment. And this refers to sex among other things.
What comes out of the mass of comments I have read is that Deepa Mehta has chosen her film context within a section of Indian behaviour which is still heavily informed by moral conservatism, and painfully extracting itself from this inheritance, which means that the forces of progress and tradition are still warring within the generations. Cinema is an agent for both forces, as it should be, so you have movies where the insistance is on the patriarchal model, where women’s roles are valued within the conservationist attitude (think of Kabhie kushi kabhie gham, for example), and stand for a (somewhat reconstructed) Indianness which separates India from the West. On the other hand, you have movies like Fire (or take Ek chotisi love story which also looks at the nature of sexual desire) where the cinema-defined roles for women are subverted, and the film-makers are in regions where the spectators can become uncomfortable, because their judging habits have not been tested there.
The rejection of the movie from the « traditional Indian » point of view poses a certain number of problems. Indian identity is certainly a complex notion! Perhaps there isn’t any such thing, seen from inside India. And probably such an identity is in the process of building itself. From the outside, on the other hand, there are obvious references that simplify the reality. See The householder and its stance on spirituality. Nevertheless, I would grant (some) Indians the right to say what they believe are the limits of what is Indian and what isn’t. And so when traditionalists say that lesbianism “doesn’t belong to Indian culture”, who are we to say they’re wrong? We know that from an artistic and cultural point of view there have been representations of such sexual behaviour (Kajuraho etc.), and perhaps indeed the superimposition of British protestant moralism has weighed down heavily on what these people believe defines Indian customs. But the strength of the reaction against what was shown in Fire is a sign that the movement ahead was perhaps slightly too quick. And perhaps the fact that Deepa Mehta is now a Canadian-established film maker had in part disconnected her from the inflammable situation which her Fire set off. The Censorship Bureau (which twice gave Fire a go-ahead) had sensed something when they had wanted Nandita Das’ character’s name to be changed to Nita instead of the revered Goddess’s name Sita, a universally recognised model of traditional womanhood.
But having said all that, I cannot but side with all the laudatory things which have been said of Fire. I have found one coherent article which criticises it (here), but otherwise many people from inside or outside India have found the movie a successful attempt at portraying the difficulties of Indian women at reaching self-respect and satisfying companionship within the frame of standard family rules and roles. See especially the reviews of the film at Imdb; check Carla’s blog where there is a very interesting debate in the comments about the political dimension of the movie, and I have to mention Ritu Menon’s analysis, one of the best-built articles about what is at stake in the film. For me, the quality of the movie comes from the very realistic surroundings in which Deepa Mehta places her movie. Much has been written to suggest that the Kapurs are a dysfunctional family and that the two women’s resorting to lesbianism was a sort of excessive solution. Matlab, no “normal” family in India would be driven to such extremes. This is where Deepa Mehta’s strength lies: the family is very normal. It’s normal in so far as it’s an ordinary community family with the two brothers, their wives and the elderly mother all living under the same roof, together with Mundu, the servant who works with them at their takeway food shop situated at the basement of this Dehli house. What we see in this family might be shocking, but that’s simply because the camera takes us inside the walls. If you lived opposite their house on the other side of the street, you’d never notice much going on. Many “shocking” things happen inside apparently normal families. Let’s start with the men.
Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), the elder brother, cannot have any children because his wife Radha (Shabana) is barren; he’s chosen to devote his life to a spiritual quest by which, by conquering his carnal desires, he will reach detachment. And he is following the courses of a swami, which shows it isn’t just a childish pose. I have read people libelling this attitude of renunciation as “asinine”, but in fact it is a deeply-set religious one. Without calling it wholly responsible and mature, one should nevertheless accept that it stands within the respectable choices which a person in India might be led to believe as self-fulfilling. Ashok doesn’t consider his wife’s needs or desires in his choice, granted. But has he been educated in such a way? For him, a wife’s place is at her husband’s feet; for him, family rules dictate that she should do everything for her husband. He has been deprived of the possibility of having a son, and hasn’t been violent with her. And she has accepted to help him, to reach this spiritual aim: I see no wrong in all that, given the circumstances.
Jatin (Javed Jaffrey)’s case has also been considered atypical and dysfunctional. But Ashok’s brother has been forced to marry within the codes of a changing tradition, and he makes it very clear that he was honest from the start: he didn’t want the marriage with Sita to happen, yet he has accepted to do what he was asked. What more could his family ask from him? As Ashok says, “miracles can happen”. Yes, well, until one does happen, is it so wrong for him to want to continue to lead his life as he would have lived it if it hadn’t been for these traditions? Everybody around him knows they are unpleasantly coercive; it’s a given fact now. Yet Jatin has accepted to half-ruin his life for notions he doesn’t believe in. Can one really blame him for the way he behaves? Isn’t it clear that the rules of arranged marriages have a flaw? Sita calls him a fool, and perhaps he is one, but the people who have decided what his happiness should be are double fools. Perhaps because one watches too many Bollywood movies (well, those that advocate arranged marriages), one doesn’t realise the violence which young men and women still undergo to conform to tradition which are getting emptied of any social meaning.
One would say the last man of the lot, Mundu, the servant, is the worst of the lot: isn’t he a depraved, immoral, vicious representative of manhood? How dare does he do what he does (jerk off while watching a porn movie) in front of the old lady, who cannot stop him and has to be the witness of his vice? Shouldn’t we agree that, portraying him, Deepa Mehta is obviously a misanthropist, that she’s depraved herself for showing such a character? Well, I don’t want to sound a devil’s advocate too much, but again, for me all of this is absolutely normal and even rather mild. Mundu is a simple employee, who has probably come to town for money, having left his family in the village or in a shack somewhere: how can one blame him if he feels lustful from time to time? Radha admits it, by the way: she says what she has reprimanded him for isn’t that different from what she herself has done: to look for a little solace in the midst of solitude. Mundu would probably not have masturbated in the presence of the grandma if the TV had been in another room. He doesn’t look like a pervert; he doesn’t want to bother her. And she’s the helpless witness of a sorry situation which they all share. What we see here isn’t a monstrously degenerated soul: he’s just an ordinary guy like you and me.
Now if all these men can’t be held guilty for their wives falling into one another’s arms, who can? The women themselves are as innocent as the men; so clearly it is the social structures that are to blame. That’s what Deepa Mehta’s film is driving at, that’s what her reformist’s ambitions target. What’s she’s criticised for is to have actually shown all this on the screen. Now, apart from the fact that many went to see the film, and were pleased to do so, which is already an argument sufficient to defend the movie - and movies in general – what can justify the criticism of the cinema showing what should remain hidden because it’s evil? This is one of the arguments most frequently levelled at Fire. Perhaps such practices exist, say the critics, but the author had no business showing them on the screen. I believe the people who think in such a way have an infantile conception of what cinema is. They consider that cinema should remain a projection of the institutionalised order, of the codified system of morals which, oppressive or not, rules society. They think that people make films to confirm what the moral majority consider proper. They can’t even imagine asking themselves why, if something is hidden, is the reason for hiding it? Certainly there are crimes which are perpetrated in the dark because the criminals are guilty about them. But surely showing these crimes can be a way to expose them? Of course, the risk is always present that this exposure might give people ideas, and encourage them to transgress the rules. But they would have gotten the ideas anyway, and transgression is as old as humankind; it hasn’t waited for theatre and cinema to carry out its deeds. Besides, there is a lot of exhibitionist cinema in India, and the Shiv Sena doesn’t say anything about it.
Let’s also deal with another argument while we’re at it. Lesbianism isn’t “in our Indian culture” say the conservatists: then why the outrage? If lesbianism was so alien, why bother? Why vandalise theatres which show practices that do not belong to Indian identity? Here I have to let Ritu Menon say what she so powerfully expresses in her already quoted article:
“The mindless protest against Fire by the Shiv Sainiks is not really about sexuality or morality. Otherwise they would be stoning Indian cinema halls every day of the week. No, their protest is about women exercising choice and acting independently. If Shabana Azmi had gone up in flames as a result of her agni pariksha in the film, the message would have been clear: transgress the norm and you will be burnt by the fire you ignite. But here the two women, Radha and Sita/Nita, take matters into their own hands, tell their husbands they don't need their selfish ways any more, and leave to lead a life of dignity and mutual respect. Now, this is shocking, because what they have done is to challenge patriarchy and the traditional familiar roles they are expected to play. Definitely un-“Indian”. Note what the petition by the SS Mahila Aghadi objected to: ``If women's physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse ... reproduction of human beings will stop.'' This cannot be tolerated. Much better that women be beaten into submission, abused and harassed, and if they still don't fall in line, why then, burn them to death. All part of “Indian tradition”. This is why you will never see a Shiv Sainik protest against eve-teasing, or the SS Mahila Aghadi take up the cause of that wretched student tin Madhya Pradesh who, just a few days ago was killed when a bunch of goondas decided to drive right over her because she dared to tick them off.”
I would now like to insist on the positive values of lesbianism, which, even when it is cleansed of guilt or decadence, is nevertheless considered as negative, deviant or extreme. During the period when Fire came out, a lot of discussions around the issue that homosexuality was either natural or acquired, took place. I would say that all of this is pointless. The situation today is that there are people who live their sexuality according to various norms, and that we have finally come to recognise it. Homosexuality, wherever it comes from, is part of human nature. Open-minded religious people recognise it. One is born a homosexual, or one can become one: what is the difference? Of course homosexuality does not open on that aspect of humanisation which is motherhood or fatherhood, even if you can of course be a mother or father and a homosexual person. But this in no way reduces the status of homosexuals to dysfunctional people. Blind people cannot see; they are persons like all of us who can. And often blind people can see the blindfoldedness of seeing people better. I think differences and divergence from the norm are part of humanity. Indeed, thanks to such varied people, we are no longer obsessed by a norm which can alienate us to who we really are. Because of the existence of homosexuals, heterosexual people can become better persons in so far as they no longer need to be worried by their conformity to an imaginary norm. They become free from their own norm. Many heterosexual persons are afraid of the possibility that in fact they might be homosexuals, or might have homosexual tendencies. Recognising these tendencies as normal or simply human is liberating and pacifying.
There is a bane in many social structures whose name is purity. Somebody says somewhere (I have lost the location) that women in India are under constant pressure to prove their situation of purity: first when they are girls, then young women of course, and married wives. Even widows! (see Water) This is a real perversion of the concept of purity. Purity means a straightforward attitude towards truth, an essential honesty towards what is right and wrong. Intrinsically, Sita’s condemnation by Rama (in the Ramayana) is wrong, because it condemns a human person in the name of a principle. Christianity has taught us that people come first, and principles second. When Sita undergoes the test of fire, which the epic makes her victoriously go through, thank goodness, it nevertheless risks wronging an innocent woman on no other basis than because she’s a woman. So Deepa Mehta’s choice of Sita for Nandita Das’s character name is the right one: Sita’s name must be giveable to all women, not just to those who conform to a traditional, male-dictated role. A woman’s sexual innocence, if one must keep this criterion, is something which only dialogue within a couple can ascertain.
Shabana Azmi’s role as Radha is mesmerizing. I don’t understand how some commentators could deride it. She can express Radha’s feelings and emotions so powerfully that sometimes it was almost too crude to watch. For example, the moment when she refuses to accept Ashok’s renewed demand for her help with his “temptation test” (occasionally she has to lie down in bed next to him, so he can check if he can still resist her appeal). It’s interesting to notice BTW that it’s when she resists him, when she refuses to go along with his demand, that he can no longer resist her, and feels compelled to kiss her in spite of himself. Then, pathetically, he stops, and realises how much a fool of himself he has made. But her expression when she faces the demand is a marvel of acting: everything is possible at that moment: we don’t know what she’s going to do: relent, explain, say nothing? She just says no, and then is forced to tell him that she’s leaving with Sita, that she’s through with his childish needs. The mixture of sternness, of compassion, of resolve, of calculated energy at that moment all show on her face, in her eyes, around her mouth. I felt I wouldn’t have liked to be in Ashok’s slippers then! Here are some other pictures of her wonderful expressions:
Then there is the spirituality that declares that “desire brings only ruin”. Here in the West we have the ascetic and monastic tradition, in which the devotee learns to control his desires, especially of a sexual nature, because such desires of the flesh occupy too strongly the mind, which as a result cannot unite to God. This tradition exists, and is good, I believe, if not pushed to excesses (which has happened regularly), because the fundamental Christian experience is one whereby God unites with a body, not with a spirit. When God becomes man, He becomes incarnate with humanity, body and soul. Desire and love belong to the oldest Judaeo-Christian tradition, for example that which has built on the biblical book of the Song of songs. Marriage is blessed throughout the Bible. In the Hindu tradition, there is also, as far as I know, a clear enjoyment of the desiring body as a source and sign of the goodness of creation. Renunciation to desire is only understandable within the context of acceptation of what man is made of. The Gita says that one should not pursue renunciation and control of impulses if one has a family duty to fulfil first, for example. Or rather, that it is within this duty only that one can hope to achieve control. Selflessness, rather than a selfish castrating of desires. If desires are lustfulness, anger, domination, greed, are they still what we call “desire”? I think they are its lower forms, its animal forms, and certainly these have to be fought. But a sound recognition of our animal nature is also important. So perhaps the restriction of desire to the point that it is destructive and no longer creative comes from a mixture of traditions, and corresponds to a false understanding of the two traditions.
PS: There used to be a 12-page documentation on the film and its political context at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore (http://www.cscsarchive.org/), but all of it has apparently been taken away, and perhaps even the website redirected. Nevertheless if you are interested, I had downloaded it at the time when it was still posted.