Women's Lot

Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire, raised some eyebrows and ruffled some feathers because it was dubbed as a film that tackled the taboo subject of women loving other women.  I don’t know how lesbians and homosexuality in general are perceived in India, but Fire is more than that.

It is about women’s lot.  It is about religion.  It is about religion used for selfish reasons.  It is about tradition that ties women’s hands and feet while men float away into the sunset.  Deepa Mehta, the director did a wonderful job in putting the lesbian angle in context, human context.  The film is dark, with no lighting at all, as if the director shot it in secrecy, but the story is easy to follow.

Sita, played by the beautiful and talented Nandita Das joins her new family via an arranged marriage.  She meets Radha, her sister-in-law who is married to Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) her husband’s older brother. 

Radha (Shabana Azmi) appears meek but she is hiding behind a tough interior.  She is not the stereotypical shy Indian bhabhi (sister-in-law).  She is a dreamer, an inheritance from her parents.  They lived in a landlocked part of India but her mother encouraged her to dream about the sea. 

The film begins with the Taj Mahal, which is regarded as the symbol of love between an Emperor and his favourite wife Mumtaz.  The fact that he had more than one wife is seldom mentioned in literature and movies.  What is ironic about the opening scene is that Sita joins a group of tourists to learn about the Taj Mahal and the love angle.

Jatin (Javed Jaffrey), her husband of three days doesn’t love her.  He has an on-going affair with Julie (Alice Poon) which he doesn’t intend relinquishing, now that Sita is his wife.  Jatin has a movie rental shop where on the surface he rents kung fu movies, while he rents hard core porn to special clients.

Sita’s only friend in her new home is Radha, her sister-in-law, who is married Ashok, Jatin’s older brother.  Sita is quite a rebel.  She wears her husband’s clothes, dances her heart away and smokes his cigarettes.  Radha catches her but understands, because Radha’s parents encouraged her to dream about the sea.

Two lonely hearts bond
The two women are lonely.  Jatin continues his affair with Julie and Ashok leaves Radha alone most of the time to visit his swami, who tells his disciples that women are an evil temptation.  Radha goes through extremely degrading rituals to prove that she is a devoted wife.

Ashok’s swami tells his disciples that they will reach a higher spiritual level if they reject women, which are a temptation.  Radha therefore watches her husband working himself to arousal then rejects her.  He doesn’t touch her.  That is the ultimate spiritual fulfilment.  Enter Sita.  Radha rejects the daily humiliation.

My take on Fire is not the lesbian angle, but the women’s angle.  Women are the caretakers of culture, my African culture or yours.  What always lingers on my mind is Biji, Ashok’s mother.  She is an invalid.  A stroke rendered her speechless.  She cannot wash herself.  She speaks through a tiny bell that Radha gave her.  She soils herself and Radha cleans her. 

Mundu (Ranjit Chowdry) the family servant loves porn movies.  He pretends to be babysitting her when in actual fact he masturbates while watching porn.  Biji rings her bell but nobody understands that it’s because she objects to Mundu’s masturbating games.

Biji cannot speak but she watches everything.  When she realises that there’s something going on between Radha and Sita, her two daughters-in-law, she spits at Radha.  Radha is the woman who washes and dresses her, cleans her when she soils herself. 

Women the real cultural oppressors
She spits at Radha because she is the custodian of Indian culture.  She is appalled that two women can sleep together. 

That scene forced me to press the button to rewind, when Sita, the young bride says, “We are so bound by customs and rituals.  Somebody has to press my button, this button marked tradition and I start responding like a trained monkey.”

Sita kisses Radha.  Radha likes it.  Everything they do becomes intimate.  They celebrate Karva Chauth which is a fast in honour of husbands and their long life in particular.  Sita and Radha do it for each other.

What is good about the film Fire is that it destroys the family unit, a family unit held together by women, the business of selling samoosas and breyani, renting porn movies and maintaining the whole facade of ‘family’.  It’s all fiction at the end of the day.  

Women stay in such marriages for many reasons.  They are humiliated everyday.  They console themselves that they are married.  They celebrate Karva Chauth.  Loving other women happens in the movies, movies such as Fire.  After all, who cares?  Deepa Mehta is a Canadian.

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