Wednesday, June 24, 2009


fireDeepa Mehta's Fire (1996) is the story of two sisters-in-law, Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), who are trapped in loveless marriages. But the film also explores issues of class, familial hierarchy, generational change, and "the struggle between tradition and individual expression," as Mehta puts it in her director's note. (Fire is not, strictly speaking, a Bollywood film: it's in English, and although it features Indian locations and actors from Bollywood and India's parallel cinema, it was made primarily with Canadian financing.)

Sita is a new bride entering the household of her husband Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi): the household includes his elder brother Ashok (Kuhlbushan Karbandan), Ashok's wife Radha, and the stroke-debilitated matriarch of the clan, Biji (Kushal Rekhi). It soon becomes clear that all is not well in the family. Jatin has agreed to the arranged marriage with Sita only to placate Ashok. Jatin is really in love with Julie, his longtime Chinese-Indian girlfriend, who is unwilling to be tied down in a traditional marriage. Ashok himself has fallen under the sway of a guru and has taken a vow of celibacy. Sita and Radha soon draw close to one another for support and solace, and slowly their emotional connection begins to deepen.

One of the pleasures of the film is the way that the traditions, rituals and myths which are woven into the daily lives of the characters take on a heightened significance and new meanings. Karva Chauth, for example, is a daylong fast undertaken by Indian wives to insure a long life for their husbands; at moonrise, the wives are supposed to receive their first sip of water from their husband's hands. When Sita and Radha observe Karva Chauth, though, at moonrise Jatin is out seeing Julie; instead of receiving her first drink of water from her husband, Sita receives it from Radha--an emotionally loaded moment in the context of the ritual.

Of course, the very names Sita and Radha are freighted with meaning. In the Ramayana, the devoted Sita is unjustly repudiated by Lord Ram, and Sita insists on a trial by fire to prove her steadfast love. (Interestingly, even though she passes through the fire unscathed, Lord Ram still banishes her!) And the legend of Radha's love for Krishna is that of a passionately carnal connection that transcends their formal vows of marriage to others. (I'm fascinated that the love of Krishna and Radha, who in many versions of the story are each technically adulterous, is often invoked at Indian weddings.) Fire then becomes a metaphor for both physical passion (Radha) and purity of heart (Sita).

Fire is the story of the collision between tradition and modernity, duty and love, men's limiting expectations and women's awakening desires for self-fulfillment. It's a complex, subtle, nuanced and surprising film. I highly recommend it, along with Mehta's Earth: 1947 (1998) and Water (2005). I haven't yet seen the final film in her Elements tetralogy, Heaven on Earth (2008), but I'm eager to see it.


  1. Like you I haven't see "Heaven on Earth" (2008), but I'm eager to see it. Nida @ Bitten by BOllywood wrote about it here:

    All the best!

  2. Sita-ji, thanks for the link to Nida's review! Even though her responses are pretty mixed, as both a Preity Zinta and Deepa Mehta fan I'm still very interested in seeing it.