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November 12, 1998


Sappho's choice

Suparn Verma

Deepa Mehta's Fire is a story of two Indian women who turn to each other for love and companionship.

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in Fire. Click for bigger pic!
Nita (Nandita Das) is the new bride of Jatin (Javed Jaafri), who lives in a joint family with his elder brother Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), Ashok's wife Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the matriarch, Biji (Kushal Rekhi). Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhary) plays the household help.

The lives of the protagonist revolve around the family owned video parlour-cum-food-joint. The women take care of the cooking while the men run the video parlour. Biji is paralysed and communicates using a bell.

Radha is leading a lonely life after being barren for 15 years. For when her husband turned to a local swami for help, he was advised to lead a life of celibacy. That had an adverse effect on the frustration levels. Nita, meanwhile, learns that Jatin has a Chinese mistress with whom he continues his relationship.

Biji silently endures having to watch Mundu masturbate while watching porn films in the living room instead of showing her tapes from the Ramayan.

Click for bigger pic!
Nita and Radha are both deeply passionate about life, the former is young and impulsive with the desire to live, and the latter has a dormant passion in her. They turn to each other for succour.

Deepa Mehta never portrays lesbianism as a problem, nor is this aspect of life discussed in the film. Radha and Nita accepts their new-found sexuality without any discussion or conflict. The scenes depicting them together are handled sensually, with no attempt to titillate or be controversial.

In many films with a feminist tilt, the director tends to make the male characters black and white. However, Mehta manages to create rounded characters, describing each as being trapped in his own world of passion and desire.

Click for bigger pic!
She shows a street performance of the Ramayan and the scene chosen is Sita's trial by fire after which, incidentally, Ram still does not accept her. The swami watching the scene with Ashok comments, "Poor Ram". The scene serves well to show the status of men and women in Indian society.

But at the end of the film when Ashok realises Radha's dalliance with Nita, he confronts her. In the argument that turns a little physical, her sari catches fire but Ashok does nothing to help her. Radha later meets up with Nita...

This modern day depiction of women going through trial by fire and a 'gay interpretation' of the scene is very interesting.

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Nandita Das, who makes her debut, is perfectly cast; she has a tremendous screen presence and captivates the audience. She knows how to use her expressions, particularly her eyes, especially during close-ups.

Shabana Azmi lends her character respectability and vulnerability without letting herself look a victim in the process. Her prowess is at its height in her scenes with Nandita, where the younger woman speaks while Shabana communicates with her expressions alone.

A R Rahman's music blends with the film and creates the ambiences. Cinematography by Giles Nuttgens is competent and some of the shots are beautifully lighted. Barry Farrell keeps the pace of the film quick with some really crisp editing. Javed Akhtar's translation of the dialogues doesn't take away anything from the original.

In fact, he says, "I learnt an important aspect of writing dialogues, I learnt why the word 'problem' has a 'p' and a 'b' and a 'm'. These are letters that make the mouth close and hence have to be in every sentence."

Click for bigger pic!
In many ways, Fire is a step ahead for films about women in cinema, both as actors and characters. It may not have the light touch of Andrew Fleming's Threesome or the humour and the emotional draw of Strawberries and Chocolate, but what Fire does differently is the way it centres on gay relationships.

The film simply depicts woman's affection for woman without going into the whys and wherefores of lesbianism. It neither endorses, nor sits on judgement. It doesn't attack men or the prevalent mores, it doesn't have a moral, and it isn't an effort by an Indian film-maker to make a film on lesbianism.

Fire belongs to the echelons of world cinema since it is a story that can apply to any woman, in any country, in any part of the globe.

The Deepa Mehta interview
The Nandita Das interview

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