Reminiscent of a classic Bollywood film, Deepa Mehta’s Fire begins in a field of mustard flowers. But this movie is not the traditional feel-good Hindi film — no, Fire puts forth one of the best well-kept secrets of contemporary Indian love — sexual orientation.
Fire primarily concerns itself with domestic spaces, which are conventionally occupied by women. Here, we see the relationship between two women, Sita, played by Nandita Das, and Radha (Shabana Azmi) unearth itself in a very gradual manner.
The movie places both Sita and Radha in the familial realm, fulfilling the role of the dutiful daughter-in-law and wife. Both are drawn to each other by their shared unhappiness in their respective marriages, resulting in moments of intimacy that are shaped by the frustration they feel with their husbands.
The very choice of the names ‘Sita’ and ‘Radha’ lends to the fact that there’s an obvious and overt representation of Hindu iconography in the film, being incarnations of Laxmi. ‘Fire’ itself references Sita’s proof of chastity for Ram, as she was able to walk through fire without being burned. In the movie, Radha is set on fire and burns while Sita is unscathed, highlighting the destitution felt by Sita in both Hindu history and the movie as, while she remains unburned, she loses the person she loves or cannot be with them freely.
Fire is shot beautifully, with all the indoor scenes balancing warm light, golds and yellows and reds, juxtaposed with shadow in a way that casts Sita and Radha in secrecy, but highlights the real intimacy between the two. The moments between Sita and Radha in the bedroom, particularly, are poignantly shot so that there is light drapery surrounding the bed frame, reinforcing their privacy.
And, while they spend a lot of time in the bedroom, Sita and Radha’s sexual intimacy is given the least amount of importance as an aspect of their illicit relationship. This is interesting as, relatively, movies depicting romantic relationships between two women almost always focus themselves on sex. Deepa Mehta’s directorial decision to cut this out gives credence to the fact that sexuality is rarely about sex, but about a romantic and intimate bond shared by two people.
In this way, the traditional domain provided the perfect platform for Sita and Radha to express their love for each other, as they were required to work together, often away from the public eye. The lumping of the two of them in private moments aided the development of their relationship, but I worry that this messaging of Fire sometimes gets convoluted. In other words, Fire, in some ways makes it seem as though the relationship between Sita and Radha occurred as a result of the privacy afforded to the two of them, rather than the natural fact of their attraction to each other. This lends to the argument that sexuality is a choice, made out of convenience, and perhaps Radha and Sita would have “stayed straight” had they been in happy marriages.
And so, what’s unsettling about this movie that’s supposed to focus itself on the love between two women is the constant return to each of their unhappy heterosexual relationships with their husbands. Perhaps it’s okay that Mehta decided to make the premise of Sita and Radha’s relationship both of their doomed marriages, but it seems to, in some ways, contradict her initial choice of making sex itself an unimportant aspect of their relationship. Surely, if sexual intimacy is all they craved from their husbands, then they would have only wanted that from each other. But Sita and Radha’s relationship is much too profound for that. I am uncomfortable with the notion that sexuality must arise from some sort of unhappiness in some other arena — that, to love another woman, Sita and Radha each had to first hate the men in their lives.
That being said, Fire is one of the most important movies in Indian history. It develops queer love not only in the traditional familial setting, but places an issue generally considered alien to the Indian population right in its heart. It reminds us that everyone, even the perfect daughter-in-law and the perfect wife, has a sexuality.