DVD Review of
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/22/09
I watched the 1996 Canadian film Fire, by Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta for the first time, after having long heard of its taboo nature, based mainly on its depiction of lesbianism. And while not a silly film, like the softcore lesbian Canadian film When Night Is Falling, nor the horrid Hollywood ‘Hook’em’ gay cowboy flick Brokeback Mountain, it is nowhere near a great film, either. As for the lesbianism, there is very little skin and the ‘love story’ is rather demure. That said, there is far too much radical Westernized capital F Feminist ideology that lowers the intellectual argument of this film. The most manifest being that, basically, the film follows the trite radical line that all men are scum who use, abuse, neglect, or degrade women. The second most obvious thing is that the two wannabe lesbians, Radha (Shaban Azmi- a huge star in Bollywood) and Sita (Nandita Das), are drop dead gorgeous- Indian lipstick lesbians, not real world lesbians along the lines of an Indian Andrea Dworkin, Rosie O’Donnell, nor Ellen DeGeneres.
But, back to point one; of the four major male characters in the film, not a one of them is portrayed in a positive light. The film’s script is straightforward and slight. There is little attempt to add any depth to the characters. In fact, almost all the subtlety the film employs can be attributed to the excellent acting of the two female leads. Mehta also shows a lack of understanding when and when to not use symbolism. As example, in this ‘coming out’ story we see the main tale, set in the present of late 1990s India interpolated with flashbacks to the young Radha’s childhood, sitting in a beautiful field of flowers with her mother and father. Her mother tells her to see the ocean, even though they are hundreds of miles away from it, and she has never seen it. Throughout the film, the young Radha keeps saying she cannot see the ocean until, naturally, at film’s end, when she decides to leave her husband and family for Sita, the final flashbacks informs us that little Radha can now ‘see’ the ocean. Yippee, but wholly predictable. Given that water, oceans, and waves are some of the oldest lesbian symbolism going, and given how telegraphed the flashbacks are, this shows Mehta a) has no sense of symbolism and metaphor, and b) no sense of how to deftly employ said techniques.
Here is the narrative summarized: Radha is a barren wife to a local middle class merchant named Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who, in response to her inability to reproduce, has taken a vow of celibacy that has lasted thirteen years. He is also studying to be a swami, a guru, or some sort of shaman. He is portrayed as cruel because he wants to occasionally test his ability to withstand sexual desire with his wife by simply laying next to her. Now, this may be asinine, and silly, but in no way is he a bad man. And Radha shares equal blame in their sexless marriage, since she has gone along with it. After all, she is barren, not frigid, and the script makes no mention of any male impotence. Anyway, Ashok is the family head, and the family owns a convenience store which sells groceries and videos. His younger brother is Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi), who is newly married by arrangement to Sita, a free thinking total babe, and still childishly adorns his room with Bruce Lee movie posters. Yet, he still fools around with his Chinese immigrant girlfriend Julie (Alice Poon- yes, that is her name), who is a foot fetishist who refused to marry him, all the while dreaming of moving to Hong Kong to become an actress and be discovered by Hollywood. Her father is a cruel and bigoted man who loathes India and its people, after his family relocated there after the Cultural Revolution in China.
The fourth despicable male is the family’s lone employee at the store, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), who gets his kicks by masturbating to Jatin’s porno videos (a part of the family’s off the books income comes from renting these films to prepubescent boys), while in front of Jatin’s and Ashok’s mute, elderly, post-stroke mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi). The scenes where he does this are the funniest in the film, especially when, in Indian accent, he shouts, ‘Oh, give it to me, Baby!’ It should be mentioned that the bulk of this film is in English, as it was made for a Canadian audience, with some minor scenes subtitled in white during the speaking of Hindi. Mundu’s fun ends when Radha catches him jerking off in front of Biji, but he insinuates he knows of the lesbian affair she and Sita engage in. This affair blossomed after Jatin’s neglect and disdain for Sita, who refuses to get pregnant by a man she does not love. The lone time we see them have sex (the lone heterosexual act), it is a loveless affair, and after shooting his load, Jatin rolls over to sleep, telling Sita not to worry of the blood from her hymen. This stark contrast between heterosexual and homosexual love’s results and aims is yet another of the misleading clichés and political stances the film takes- that all things gay are good, and all things straight are not, even as gay political ideology despises the reverse stereotype.
Eventually, after being disregarded after his exposure as a masturbator, Mundu seeks vengeance, and, while the two babes go muff diving, he tracks down Ashok at the swami’s, brings him home, and then is dismissed from his employment, much to his dismay. This is when we learn that he is secretly in love with Radha, for he has a family photo with her mien circled in a red heart. Thus, his act of betrayal toward Radha is really his attempt to free her so that she can be with him. But, it fails, as he also does not understand her relationship with Sita. Ashok is horrified to see the two women together, and that Radha will be leaving him for Sita, who leaves the house. Even the mute Biji shows contempt, by spitting on her daughter-in-law. During an argument, where Ashok tries to show his sexual passion, her dress and sari catch fire near the stove- another blatant use of bad symbolism as it hearkens back to an earlier enacted street play wherein the goddesses Sita and Radha discuss purging by fire. Then, we cut to the end, where the two women meet in a rainstorm.
Now, there are many plot points which were easy to see coming, which is the fault of the screenplay by Mehta. But the film is far too suffused with politics to approach greatness, even were it better written. It is not as overtly preachy and hammy as Brokeback Mountain, but it does make excuses for its adulterous lesbians, just as the Hollywood film basically makes heroes out of lying lowlife bastards. As example, while Jatin is certainly a fool and cheater, and Sita owes him no allegiance, the same cannot be said of Radha, for Ashok is certainly a devoted and loving husband. If she was not getting what she wanted, it was her right and duty to speak up and demand change, or leave with honor. His response to her barrenness may have been silly and wrong, but it was not accomplished without her complicity. Radha, in this sense, is the villain of the film, for while Jatin is a letch, he is shown as utterly void of depth. Mundu is a slimebag, but an insignificant little bug. But Radha has the ability to think and choose. She does not merely fall into her relationship with Sita, she chooses its deceptions over her first allegiance to her husband. If she wanted out or change, she should have spoken up, for the energy and will she displays in leaving him could have earlier been displayed within her marriage. Thus, she is an agent of the ill that befalls the family, not a victim, the way the naïve and forcefully betrothed Sita is.
The other aspects of the film are well done, such as the musical soundtrack by A.R. Rahman, and the cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, but nothing that approaches greatness. The DVD, put out by New Yorker Video, has the 108 minute version of the film, and is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. There is no audio film commentary, but there is a theatrical trailer, cast profiles and production notes, and a documentary on the controversy the film caused in India, which led to its banning. All in all, it shows Indian culture in a very silly and puerile light.
That said, the film, aside from its objective artistic flaws, also suffers from an insular take on its culture. To the non-Indian, as example, there are many political points meant for Indian society, alone, that are lost outside that milieu, and without these touchstone hot buttons as references, the film’s political relevance fizzles- the best example being Sita’s and Radha’s names being based upon Hindu goddesses, and Sita being purged by fire- although in the film it is Radha who is purged by fire; a point Indian film critics lash out at, but which seem silly criticisms to foreign ears. Yet, ultimately, what causes Fire to only reach passable mediocrity as a film is the more immanent artistic flaws of screenplay, characterization, and political imposition. It is a film that is solid, but nothing worth viewing a second time, save for glimpsing the two gorgeous lipstick lesbians. Not that that is a bad thing, of course, but why not try Penthouse, instead? At least there you won’t be subjected to puerile political statements.
The film is the first of a trilogy of films, and was followed by Earth and Water, which seem to be less ‘controversial,’ as well as less pointedly provocative. Whether or not this equates with a genuine upgrade of the art is something to be seen, but there is potential here. It’s just that Mehta’s desire to make a cogent statement so overwhelms her desire to make it endure to future generations, and outside its natal setting, that this film fails. Rein that in, and she has the makings of an artist of consequence. I’ll be watching.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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