Directed by Deepa Mehta screenplay by Deepa Mehta (Canada, 1998).
Reviewed by Ramesh N. Rao [Editor's intro: "Ramesh N. Rao is an associate professor of Communication at Truman State University, Missouri, and serves on the Consultative Committee on Indic Traditions and Conflict Management at Columbia University. He has worked as a copy editor at The Hindu and received a PhD from Michigan State University". CJS wallia]
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
A Lot of Smoke but Little FIRE
Is it too late in the day to do a review of the movie "Fire"? After all, reams of paper have been used by writers and correspondents in India and abroad to make much of this film whose screening has led to a variety of public controversies. The director, Deepa Mehta and the two actresses, Shabana Azmiand Nandita Das have been seen at various film galas (I wonder where the male actors were/are?!) in all their Indian chic and big bindis, and heard in their sing-song convent school accent and diction holdingforth on the plight of Indian women, on the Ramayana, male dominance, and the joint family. After such overexposure, you may ask, is there anything left to say? Let us see.... Before I begin to peel off the layers of gloss that the glossies have put on this film, here is a brief summary of the plot. Sita (Nandita Das)and Radha (Shabana Azmi) are two sisters-in-law who are both unhappily married and live in a Delhi household that contains four other people--two brothers, their ailing mother and a house servant. Of the two brothers, Jatin (Javed Jaffer) is newly married to Sita and Ashok(Kulbhushan Kharbanda) the elder, an ascetic who has taken a vow of celibacy is married to Radha. Ashok has ignored Radha's sensual and emotional needs. Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry) is the man-servant/housekeeper who keeps jacking off to porn movies in front of the mute and sickly mother, Biji (Kushal Rekhi). Sita feels ignored during her honeymoon and we find out that Jatin is in love with Julie, a Chinese-Indian, who refuses to marry him because he lives in a joint family. Radha, bindi-less and heavy sighing, looks after everyone in the house and even contributes hermite to the family business (video store cum fast food stand) and so is the good and long-suffering bahu. Sita liberates her by planting a kiss on Radha's lips at the very first and unprobed meeting and very soon we have them in each other's arms and behind unlocked closed doors through which Mundu spies Ms. Azmi caressing the dark nipples of Ms. Das (shot in astylishly "Aesthetic" angle) and rats on them to Ashok. Ashok gets mad, discovers his sensual side, but is too late to evoke any response except rejection from Radha, who then accidentally has her sari catch fire. Asshe tries to put out the fire she sees her husband rush to his mother's aidignoring her own plight. This Radha is really a Sita who goes through asymbolic agnipariksha in this strange new Ramayana, wherein it is not a "Cold, Distant" Rama who challenges Sita to undergo the test by fire sothat his citizens are satisfied of her "Fidelity"; but it is a test by fire that liberates her from a husband who cares more for his mother than heloves his wife. Finally, we have Radha and Sita meeting in a Muslim sufishrine and the viewers are left to believe that they lived happily ever after in each other's arms. The direction and the screenplay is by Canadian-Indian Deepa Mehta, music is scored by A. R. Rahman and the person responsible for those well-framed shots of the Taj Mahal and the Lodhi Gardensor the dark nipples of the dusky Nandita Das is Giles Nuttgens. As in many post-modern and pretentious plays, movies, art or music, the viewer/listener is supposed to fill in the missing details and discover hidden meanings in the product. These "Discoveries" have provided the fuel to make this superficial and mediocre film a household word and mediocre "Scholars" with axes to grind have rushed in to write their conference papers and journal articles. So, for example, we have in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, appearing in March 1999, an article by Linda Hess titled "Rejecting Sita: Indian responses to the ideal man's cruel treatment of his ideal wife" the following:
"One evening, after a draft of this paper was completed, I went to the movies in Berkeley. I knew that the director was an Indian woman and that the plot involved two sisters-in-law whose rotten marriages drove them to discover love and passion with each other. I had no expectation that it would be relevant to what I was writing. But something clicked when I saw the name of the film production company: Trial by Fire. As it turned out, the film called Fire was shot through with images of the Ramayana. The younger, more independent and passionately combustible of the two women was named Sita. Scenes from the television Ramayana entered the plot at crucial moments. A melodramatic and comic urban Ramlila was shown. The husband of the older woman listened to a recitation of Tulsidas with his guru. And always it was the same episode: the agnipariksha. Here, in a more realistic middle-class Delhi milieu, was a fleshing out of Snehalata Reddy's defiant Sita who rejects the fire ordealand the dharma that ordains it, rejects Rama's rejection. Here was a full imagining of one scenario that might unfold in the 1990s... if Sita spoke with her true voice after so many years o f silence. And here also was the bride-burning theme. Not only I, not only the poet M. Geetha, but also the filmmaker Deepa Mehta, saw a direct connection between the endless, obsessive replays of Sita entering the fire and the inspiration a man might feel to set fire to a wife who didn't fulfill his needs and expectations".
So, we already have the first cliched and convoluted take on the movie and the unbelievable stretch to make connections to the epic. For, if the younger woman is named Sita then why is it Radha, the elder sister-in-law, who undergoes the agnipariksha in the movie? What kind of a coy plot is this where the film-maker wants to use the Ramayana for political purposes but is unwilling to name names in the proper order? It is the same cleversmarminess that enabled Shabana Azmi, the actress and now Rajya Sabhamember, to lie to Indian readers when she wrote in the Times of India that the characters were named Nita and Radha and not Sita and Radha. What she forgot (deliberately) to mention was that in the international release of the film the characters were named Sita and Radha, whereas in the Indian release, both the Hindi and the English version, their names were changed to Nita and Radha. It will be interesting to speculate as to the reasons why.
Rajeev Srinivasan, writing for Rediff On The Net (January 11th, 1999)says in response to Ms. Azmi's misleading statement that "When artists are, at best, irresponsible, possibly hypocritical and, at worst, agent provocateurs it is hard for the casual observer, even one who condemnscensorship, to support them unequivocally". What he is saying needs to be more clearly said. First of all, the irresponsibility part: a member of the Rajya Sabha, a well-known actress, a high-profile activist for women's causes and someone who lectures at Ivy League universities, Ms. Azmi, who also happens to be Muslim, has deliberately misled her readers and the Indian public about the political nature of the film. She has told a deliberate lie to gain a political advantage. As readers will recall, there were protests against the film and a call for its ban by the likes of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra because it showed lesbian love and because the characters were named Radha and Sita, the two most popular Hindu female mythical/religious figures. By claiming that the characters were named Nita and Radha was a kind of sleight-of-hand that Ms. Azmi used to assert that the boorish Shiv Sainiks and the Bajrang Dal protesters had not evenseen the movie and were thus misrepresenting it. She seems to be saying, "Look, we didn't want to misuse the names of Radha and Sita; and we never meant to hurt the sentiments of Hindus. It is the Shiv Sainiks and others who are to blame for all the controversy". Srinivasan argues that the deliberate choice of the names suggests a hidden agenda "That of provoking a certain set of Hindus". The director could have as well chosen names that do not have the scriptural meaning as the names Sita and Radhado. Or the characters could have been Muslim or Christian or Sikh. No, that would not given Ms. Azmi and Ms. Mehta the kind of mileage they were seeking.
The hypocrisy part has to do with the opportunities that the film has created for the likes of Ms. Azmi and Ms. Mehta to talk about Indian (Hindu) women, the influence of religion and myth on interpersonal and marital relationships, bride-burning, dowry, et al., while at the same time to go around claiming in India that the movie was not meant to harm Hindu sentiments. For these two women and for many pseudo-secular Hindu bashers, these opportunities to lecture to Western and international audiences about the nature of the Hindu joint family system, of the oppression of Hindu women, of the patriarchal nature of Hindu families and how all of these can be traced to the Hindu epics, especially the Ramayana would not have come if not for the production of such "Media artifacts".The Ramayana has now been made the fount of all things ugly in the Hindu psyche and society and "Siting" Sita has become a major cottage industry for academics (There were about ten papers on the subject in the recently concluded South Asia conference at the University of Wisconsin, Madison). In India Ms. Azmi and Ms. Mehta (the two have been the most vocal and visible) can claim that since the character is Nita and not Sita, people don't have to worry about their sentiments being trampled upon. Elsewhere, they can share their "Deep Reading" of the Hindu epics and make all those cliched connections to oppression, women's emancipation, et al. Note that the attack is on Hindu society and not Indian society. All of the Hindu male characters in the movie are blemished. The Hindu women are all fighting oppression and that is supposed to be good for they can thus beem ancipated. And the emancipation comes not just through the abandoning of the two husbands/brothers, but through the symbolic embrace of a new religion and a new sexuality.
Linda Hess (quoted above) says that the television serial Ramayana "Entered the plot at crucial moments" but she does not mention that one of those crucial moments was when the servant, Mundu, claiming to show the old, sickly, mute mother the Ramayana inserts a porn movie into the videoplayer and masturbates in front of the woman. Many have falsely jumped to the conclusion that in fact the servant masturbates to the scenes in the epic. Some others have said the scene depicts the helplessness of the old and the sickly in India. Yet others have asserted that the ill-treatment of maids and servants in India is so rampant that we can expect them to hitback at their employers or take advantage of them when the time is right. We can go on to endless speculation: the renting out of porn videos to "Special" customers and "Under the Counter" indicates the hypocrisy of a society that has censored even scenes of kissing in Indian movies but iswilling to allow that and more in imported films and who are not too bashful of watching porn; the masturbation scene shows how Indian men are sexually repressed and deviant; it shows how man-servants vent their sexual frustration and on and on.
There is another scene where we are shown Mundu possessing a photograph of the family and on which he has drawn a heart around the face of Radha. It is the servant who is in love with her, desires her, whereas the husband is mostly interested in listening to his guru pontificate on the Ramayana. Real, human love of the servant asopposed to the sublimated and deviant version of the husband. The servant masturbating is really therefore not the deviant one. It is the repressed sexuality of the husband that is deviant. Get it? Can you hear the graduate students in a seminar on international films dissect the movie, and have them invite Ms. Azmi to come talk to them?Therein lies the problem with this film. It attempts, like good literature or art to leave something out, to hint at other things, so that readers and viewers have both the challenge and the satisfaction of trying to make connections and making them; but unlike good art that is highly and deeply contexted, this movie is trite and cliched. It is as one reviewe points out, "Far too Simplistic". Chris Chang, writing for Cinemania Online says, "The film glosses over complex sexuality with a Bad Husbands Turn Their Wives Into Lesbians formula. And even Freud would admit that that's cartoon-like psychology". The film might have been saved if indeed it had explored in-depth sexuality and lesbianism. But no, the directorhas a number of other axes to grind and a variety of postures to strike, and so we have an attempt at making all sorts of connections to myth, social conditions, sexuality, both male and female, religion, oppression, class differences and conflict and anything else you might want to think of or project on to. So, we have a "Slick" director who has been able to get a "Rise" out of a variety of groups and thus get the kind of media and public attention panderers almost always get: too much.
Some have seen the last scene in which the two female characters take refuge in a mosque as a case of "Rejecting the Aggressor" in an emotionally reactive way such that everything associated with the aggressor becomes the object of their rejection. The mosque, for such viewers, may symbolize the going to "Something Different", nothing more. Others have argued that such a perspective is invalid. Mr. Pran Lal, in a discussion on the South Asian Journalists' Association web forum argues that the issue of the characters taking refuge in "Something Different" from their aggressors depends on how the director/story-writer defines the aggressor. He asks, "Who are the aggressors in the movie? Are the aggressors males or are they Hindu males?" and suggests that if the aggressors were (just) males then the protagonists going to a mosque(another male bastion) would NOT constitute going to "Anything Aifferent". A mosque, surely, is not a feminine entity. He argues that if the director really wanted to portray this in terms of a male-female or aprotagonist-antagonist dichotomy then she could have shown the two characters taking refuge in a Kali or a Durga temple. After all, Durga'sslaying of Mahishasura is the representation of ultimate supremacy offeminine power, he claims. Thus, the two taking refuge in a mosque has noother explanation other than the director portraying this as "Hindu women fleeing the tyranny of Hinduism and taking refuge in Islam". In a country that has been subjected to enough conversion through force and seduction this may be seen as yet another not so subtle invitation for conversion to Islam. One can criticize the movie for a myriad other reasons and find glaring problems at the turn of almost every frame. For example, in the English version of the movie all the characters speak in the kind of Hollywood stereotype of Indian English, except when the scenes are of the road side enactment of the Ramlila or some milkmen conversing at daybreak on a Delhi street. In those scenes Hindi/Bhojpuri is spoken and subtitles are in English. Pray why? To show class difference? But how come Mundu also speaks English? That conundrum must be a good one for those graduate students to resolve. We have an early scene when Sita enters the house and is received at the door by Mundu (who performs the aarti!) and Radha who not only does not wear the auspicious bindi but is wearing salwar-kameez. So, we have a man-servant and a widow-like sister-in-law in Punjabi/Muslimgarb welcoming the new bride into the household. The director either has no clue about Hindu rituals or is trying to make yet another point for those students of literary and film criticism: see, in many modern Hindu homes they really have no clue about the right way of performing these rituals and thus these rituals are without meaning and significance. Another scene for "Deep Probing" would be Sita's first act as soon as sheenters the household. She goes into her room, takes off her sari, pulls on a pair of jeans (to enable the panting male audience to get the first look at Ms. Bose's belly button), turns on the stereo for some loud pop music, lights up a cigarette and gyrates wildly. How come? "You see, Indian girls are repressed in their homes and when they get a chance, they too would like to experiment with all these simple things that you take for granted: wearing a pair of jeans, smoking, listening to music...." Can you hear that sing-song voice of Ms. Azmi explaining the deep structure of this scene to students at Duke or Harvard or Dartmouth?Finally, what is the significance of the title of the movie? Is it a modern metaphor for the agnipariksha in the Ramayana? That would be a stretch for the connections to the epic is arbitrary, remote and isolated. Is it to indicate something of the qualities of fire: to burn, to destroy, to provide warmth, to cleanse, to purify? That would be an even harder stretch. The choice of the title indicates to me one thing about this film: it is artiness trying to masquerade as art. It is a pretentious film made with one purpose: to rankle and to irritate. To believe, as some do, that it raises the consciousness of people and challenges the traditional is both a glib and an ignorant assessment.
Newspapers reported that after the screening of the movie at the Indian Film Festival in Trivandrum, a man came up to Ms. Mehta and told her "I am going to shoot you, Madam". And of course, there were those ShivSainiks in their underwear protesting and shouting slogans in front of the house of the veteran actor, Dilip Kumar, who had signed a petition to the President of India seeking to condemn those who were calling for a ban on the film. I don't know why the man in Trivandrum was so incensed. I do know why the Shiv Sainiks were protesting. I am against censorship and I am against threats, violent or vile. However, the two, the man in Trivandrum and the Shiv Sainiks in Bombay could have gotten together and just asked: "WHY did you shoot this film, madam?!"