During the 1990s, Bollywood experienced massive success with romantic movies like Rangeela (1995), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Raja Hindustani (1996). However, it also witnessed movies like Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996) and Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), which offered a different take on love altogether. While Kama Sutra was banned by the Censor Board of India, Fire led to outbursts and protests. As the first installment in Mehta’s Elements trilogy, Fire is a radical and ahead-of-its-time movie that remains relevant to this day.
Fire explores the complicated relationship between two sisters-in-law within an orthodox Hindu household. Oppressed by the customs and rituals of the family, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) find peace and comfort in each other’s company and embark on a journey of love and desire. The film is one of the first mainstream Bollywood movies to take up a subject like same-sex relationship in a country where it has always been a taboo. What further complicates matters is that the movie centers on two women who defy societal norms and question age-old traditions within the domestic household.
Though the relationship remains central to the plot, liberation and emancipation of the two characters are the major themes that the director really tries to explore. Radha and Sita, upon being ignored by their husbands, look deep into each other’s hearts to find an identical void, a loneliness. Mehta draws upon that very loneliness as a point of reference for their newly discovered sexualities. Sita is bold enough to kiss Radha and even takes it farther when she visits Radha at midnight and makes love to her. The couple’s desire to see the ocean is symbolic of their desire to be free. The terrace, where the couple meet in three different scenes, resonates with the ocean and becomes that open space in their otherwise suffocating life. The growth of the two characters is remarkable in that they do not end up as victims of patriarchy. Rather, they worked their way around the rigid environment they were subjected to and get united in the end.
Radha and Sita become the embodiment of the servile Indian women who must go on performing their duty to their husbands and families. They are expected to cook, tend to the elderly, keep their husbands happy and even act happy themselves. Their pain and agony gets reflected in Sita’s words when she says, “Somebody just has to press my button, this button marked ‘Tradition’ and I start responding like a trained monkey.” In putting up with the traditions and customs of the house, their want for love and fulfillment gets ignored. Yet again, it’s ironic how all the men in the house revolves around desires. Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) tries to control his desires, Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) gives in to his desires and even deals in erotic DVDs and Mundu, the servant, engages in auto-eroticism. Biji, the eldest person in the house, though she remains silent throughout the movie, her gesture in ringing the bells is a constant reminder of the all-pervasive patriarchy.
The director plays with our understanding of religion and reinterprets the famous scene of the Ramayana where Sita, upon her return to Ayodhya, is questioned about her purity. Sita had to go through an agni pariksha (a trial by fire) to prove her sanctity. The Ramlila in Fire, when juxtaposed with Radha’s sufferings, shows how women have had to go through trials time and again, and yet they have emerged flawless. Despite this, people have always sympathized with men, as the Swamiji does when he says “Poor Ram” at the end of the trial scene. Moreover, when Radha’s saree catches fire in the final scene, one cannot help but recall that same trial Sita had to go through in the Ramayana.
That the movie is a take on a different form of love altogether becomes clear with the subtle hints and clues that are left for the audience. While typical commercial Bollywood movies would deal in a romanticized form of love, Mehta’s take was one of a mixed feeling of love and compassion, one that was achieved with a lot of hardship. The movie, going back to the yellow mustard field, might remind one of the romantic song 'Tujhe Dekha Toh' from the movie DDLJ starring Shahrukh and Kajol. But here, the Mustard field has much darker undertones. Another scene in Fire shows a marriage procession passing with the band playing the music to the famous song 'Mehndi Laga Ke Rakhna', again from DDLJ. Once again the scene illustrates how the concept of marriage has always been romanticized, even though it may actually be unhappy and painful, like Radha’s and Sita’s experiences.
Fire had its debut screening in the Toronto Film Festival in 1996. A film that talks about the position of the woman in the house, her sexuality and the concept of religion was not spared when it came to India in 1998. Despite the movie successfully making it to the theatres without any cuts from the Censor Board, the movie faced a backlash from certain political and religious parties. Theatres were rampaged, posters were torn and petitions were made for the film to be banned. The film went for a review back to the Censor Board and returned, yet again, without any cuts. Telling such a tale during the 90s and the subsequent reactions against it speaks volumes about how important it was for the message to reach the masses.