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Almost 30 Years Later, 'Fire' Still Blazes as a Seminal Text in Queer Cinema



Nandita Das as Sita leans her head on the shoulder of Shabana Azmi as Radha in Fire
Zeitgeist Films

Editor's Note: The first Pride marches in Asia were held in Japan in 1994, more than 20 years after the ones held in the U.S.. Of course, “pride” is essentially a Western concept, so this isn’t to say that countries in the East were necessarily “slower” to celebrate queerness. On the contrary, as we hope to show with the films in The Asian Cut's Pride 2024 series, Asia has such rich, diverse, and complex queer histories, particularly when it comes to its many LGBTQ+ cinema industries. And while the handful of films in this collection could never adequately cover the vastness of Queer Asia, we are hopeful that they — and the insights our writers bring — will serve as a launchpad for your curiosity, your enthusiasm, and, at the very least, your love. 


 

Fire is commonly recognized as the first Indian film to portray queer relationships. The movie received just the kind of response that one expects of such a milestone film: riots, theatre arson, and nationwide outrage from religious fanatics who cried heresy at its portrayal of queerness. But it wasn't only the supposed affront to the institute of marriage that offended them; it was also the filmmaker's audacity to name the film's lesbian characters after two of the most revered goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. 


The movie stars Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das as Radha and Sita, respectively. In Hindu scripture these figures are earthly incarnations of the supreme Goddess in her form as Lakshmi, the goddess of riches. More significantly, the lives of both these figures were marked by separation from their partners — Sita from her husband Ram, after she was kidnapped by the demon king Ravan; and Radha when her childhood lover Krishna left her to pursue broader horizons. For the religious fanatics, naming such purportedly offensive characters after their beloved goddesses was an unimaginable transgression. 


Yet, it is through the name that the film paints its defining strokes. Fire doesn’t hold its legacy merely on the basis of its milestone status. Armed with a sharp, biting sense of humour and a gift for evoking subtle yet deeply felt eroticism, filmmaker Deepa Mehta does a powerful job of transmuting traditional women spaces into sensual moments between two lovers — the movie’s themes intertwined deeply and beautifully with the everyday cultural intricacies of the traditional Indian household. There, it weighs female desire against the suffocating duty of the woman in traditional Indian society, eventually drawing out a thrilling parallel between the story of its lead characters and that of the goddess avatars upon which they were named. 


Fire takes place in a household filled with overt warmth, yet defined by a hidden tension. The newly-wed Jatin (Javed Jafferi) and his older brother, Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), are both sexually disinterested in their wives for different reasons. Ashok turned to spirituality years ago after finding out that his wife, Radha, is barren; he found solace with a spiritual guru who advocated for a rejection of sexual desires. Meanwhile, Jatin never wanted to marry Sita in the first place; he is in a fully-fledged relationship with another woman, who rejected his marriage proposal wanting to stay free from such cultural bondage. 


Rejected by their husbands on such an intimate level, the two sisters-in-law quickly bond with each other. The way their relationship blooms is absolutely exquisite. The scene where Radha walks in on Sita dancing in her husband’s jeans is mundane by all appearances, but Azmi’s expressive eyes betray the first hint of attraction. As Sita cheerfully learns to fit into the household routine, she finds solace in Radha when Jatin’s persistent apathy breaks her down. Against the evocative, diffuse light of their cloistered home and the busy family restaurant, the two grow closer until the inevitable happens. It’s a rosy trajectory that feels very realistic because of the homely circumstances in which the relationship develops. And throughout this journey, Radha and Sita hold true to their established personas — a reversal of the mythical personas where the Das' Sita, who in the mythological texts is revered for her chastity and her devotion to duty, takes on the playful and seductive persona of the mythical Radha. And vice versa: upon rediscovering her latent joys and sense of self, Azmi's Radha steps into her assertive power with the same sort of ease with which the mythological Sita defends herself against detractors.  


This primary theme is placed in between other taboos that draw out a more complex picture than simply a classical romance. There is the incidental abuse of the family matriarch Bibi, bedlaid and mute due to a stroke, as the house help Mundu masturbates to porn in the same room as her. Jatin’s infidelity is a quietly accepted fact in the household, and Ashok is less worried about his brother’s infidelity than about his duty to carry on the family name by begetting a son. Situations like these are thrown in flatly yet with that odd saturation of sincerity, as is the case with English-language Indian films of the time, for the viewer to take in as they will. And all of these taboos are forgiven — even the illicit relationship between the sisters-in-law. But what breaks the camel’s back, among all of these taboos, is that of defying patriarchy, where both the brothers, nonchalant in so many other ways, ultimately resort to violence when openly defied by their wives.


For such a concisely written film, Fire has none of the hurriedness that is sometimes found in such tight scripts. The movie manages to make its point very early and in a very complete way; within the first 20 minutes, not only is every facet of the family dynamics laid out with all its undertones, but the movie also makes its major themes well-known. Desire is a constant, as we see each character deal with their sexuality in varied ways. The other big theme is the role of the woman in traditional Indian society. 




Nandita Das a Sita and Shabana Azmi as Radha share an intimate laugh in Fire
Zeitgeist Films

Fire examines female sexuality in context of their duties within the traditional Indian culture. In fact, this theme is probably spelled out with the greatest frequency, through recurring dialogues, aphorisms, and narration of folk tales, that patently refer to the Indian woman as subservient to and defined in totality by their duties to their household. That the man, in his inherent superiority, is naturally bestowed with the power to grant forgiveness, or performative accommodation towards his woman’s insubordination, but the woman may never cross the boundaries of her role in any significant, definitive manner. 


Having said that, the bond that develops between Radha and Sita is far from an insincere one; it's not merely an act of defiance. Their love for each other comes alive not through the symbolic terms in which their scenes are framed — rather, it does so through the heartwarming sincerity of their moments together, the flirtatious games where the older Radha becomes the demure one. The sensual excitement of breaking through her shell to take a bold step as she seduces Sita, or the carefree moments of them dancing for nothing but enjoying each other's company. It is in the course of their self-indulgence that defiance gradually comes into the picture, and Fire pointedly subverts many Hindu traditions, ones taking place between husband and wife as well as the humble ones taking place between women of a household, into a sensual twist. Small actions like buying jewellery and oiling each other’s hair turn into flirtations while major strides are made in moments like the Karvaa Chauth scene, where a fast traditionally made by women for their husbands is broken not at the hands of their husbands but each other. 


The biggest symbolic throughline that Fire draws goes back to the name. In the Hindu epic Ramayan, the story of Sita doesn’t conclude after she is rescued by her husband from the demon king. Upon returning to her kingdom, where she is queen, Sita faces questions regarding her chastity, since she has been under capture for an extended period of time. Hurt by these sentiments, Sita offers herself up to the ultimate test: the agniparikshyaa — trial by fire. She steps into a burning inferno with the proclamation that the fire shall burn her if she is impure. Of course, she comes out of the test unharmed, but the gossip does not stop. Ultimately, Ram decides that the queen’s character should be above any question, and abandons her. 


This emotional moment from the Ramayan is alluded to a few times throughout the movie, with ample cinematic ammunition dedicated to bringing this story to the fore. Then, in the penultimate confrontation between Ashok and Radha (who represents the mythological Sita), Ashok vacillates dangerous between emotions — from a willingness to forgive her transgression, to a senseless rage at her outright defiance that leads him to force himself onto her, breaking 13 years of his vow. The moment is fleeting, and as he walks away, Radha discovers that her saree has caught on fire upon the burning stove behind her. The scene fades out to a dazzling white as she is left to fend for herself. 


But the movie doesn't end there. The final scene shows Sita waiting for Radha amidst torrential rainfall. In the distance, she finally sees her lover, who has gone through her own agni parikshyaa and come out safely.

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