When it was first released, Fire was a scandal. Too many holy cows did it
rub the wrong way! Now that with the passing of time soot has covered up the
blazing fire of controversies, one can look at the apparently path-breaking
film in a more objective way.
Fire is a critique of the typical middle class Indian family from the Hindi
belt and the way that it treats its women. The badi bahu Sita, so ably
enacted by Shabana Azmi, is the backbone of the family, but neither the husband,
who is a devoted follower of a dicey Sadhu, nor the chhota dewar, whom,
in the true fashion of the Hindi film, she has brought up like the son she never
could have, care for her comfort. The old and ill mother-in-law and the adoring
crook of a family servant, another typical Hindi film character that Fire mocks,
add to her never ending travails.
Into this mess walks in the smouldering Nandita Das as the younger daughter-in-law.
Her's is a volatile enough situation. Her husband is not interested in this
marriage, which is a sacrifice he undertakes for the sake of the family, as
his ambitious girl-friend would not be bound by the ghar-grihasthy. So,
for no fault of her's, the young woman feels frustrated in many a way. How she
finds an outlet for all the suppressed libidinous desires and how her immediate
family react to it is what made the film the furore that it was.
The film sure makes a feminist statement, that is ably helped by the casting
coup. Shabana Azmi as the understanding, long suffering bahu is a subversion
that is as interesting as Javed Jaffrey as the yuppie Indian on the move who
hates his motherland, best signified by the family with whom he shares a hate-love
relationship. Nandita Das as the confident younger daughter-in-law is a promising
Yet, with the vantage point of all the controversies that the film kicked
up, one fails to understand why this young woman, who can slap back her hitting
husband, chooses to enter into a lesbian relationship. She could very well have
walked out on her oaf of a husband. She could have supported her jethani
from outside the family as anyway she finally does. In other words, in her
eager hurry to take potshots at Indian prototypes, Deepa Mehta forgets to give
a depth and a logic to her story and characters. Why can not she show Sita to
be modern enough to adopt an orphaned child? Why is she to enter into an infamous
relationship with a bleak future?
In brief, so obsessed is the director with grand gestures against Indian traditions
- as exemplified by the very names of her characters - that she loses the credibility
of her own film. A debut director who pokes justifiable fun at the karwa
chauth, another must of a Hindi film, can not resist the temptation of a
sacrificial fire purifying her version of a Sita!
The film, in other words, becomes too much a content-oriented debate leading
to umpteen fire fighting, but hardly is there any filmic angle to map its controversial
content. Too much scandal mongering, in brief, can ring in the cash box, covering
the production costs et al, but in the final analysis it reduces serious
issues women suffer to mere wind fanning the Fire!