(Deepa Mehta, India/Canada, 1997)


Fire begins with its own version of the Guy Movies versus Chick Flicks debate inaugurated by Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

Sita (Nandita Das) listens rapt to a tourist guide’s florid tale about the origins of the Taj Mahal, and then asks her gormless husband, Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi): “Don’t you like romance films?” “No”, he brusquely replies. “I like kung fu, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan!” You know immediately that their three-day-old marriage is doomed.

Writer-director Deepa Mehta intends her third feature to address weighty subjects – women’s independence, the questioning of rigid convention, the subversive force of love – but it never gets beyond the simplistic, binary thinking enshrined in that opening dialogue exchange. A turgid and didactic piece about the coming to feminist consciousness of two Indian women, Fire fails to engage on any level.

When Jatin takes his young bride back to live in a take-away restaurant run by Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda), the domestic misery really starts. Forced to give up disco music and blue jeans, Sita spends her days slaving, pining and looking after Ashok’s infirm mother, Biji (Kushal Rekhi). Jatin, meanwhile, carries on his torrid affair with an old flame. Sita’s destiny is slowly changed, however, by the mutual tenderness sparked between herself and the equally miserable Radha (Shabana Azmi).

Films that idealise lesbian love now form a small genre. The pattern is always the same. Heterosexuality is presented in base, disgusting, animalistic terms: virginal blood on the wedding night sheets, furtive masturbation, joyless penetration and humping. The affair between Sita and Radha, on the other hand, is depicted like a cosmetics commercial – all lingering looks, discreet, spidery caresses and an endless incantation on the keyword of desire.

For a film that pretends to evoke primal, earth-shattering, elementary passions, there is absolutely nothing fiery going on here. Mehta’s direction is as dull as Mira Nair’s in the very similar Kama Sutra (1996). Despite the valiant efforts of a fine cast (Azmi is particularly dignified), the project is sunken by its amateurish and cerebral conception of dramatic emotion.

© Adrian Martin October 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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