If you have heard of Indian-born Canadian Director Deepa Mehta, you’ll know her Elements Trilogy: Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005), all of which are set in India.
Mehta is the sort of the movie Director who tackles difficult and controversial issues. I’ve watched Earth and Water a couple of years ago and was highly impressed with her work. Today, I completed her trilogy by watching Fire.
It is strange that I haven’t even heard of Fire until recently although it is the first part of her trilogy. It seems that the film had gained very little attention due to the release of Mira Nair’s erotic Kama Sutra at the same time.
At first, it was easy to assume that Fire would deal with the practice of sati, where widowed women in some Hindu communities either voluntarily or are forced into (usually the latter) immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. After all, her other movie, Water, dealt with the morality of another harsh cultural practice in India where widows are rendered as untouchables by being forced into isolation from the community. Some of them include girls as young as nine who are forced into marriage.
Surprisingly, Fire is about lesbianism although the title itself signifies desire or temptation. While the subject may not be as ghastly as sati, homosexuality in conservative India may be even more controversial. Apparently during the screening of the movie, some Hindu community who objected to Mehta’s depiction of homosexuality in Hindu culture, had organized attacks on cinemas. Water, was subsequently filmed in Sri Lanka instead of India due to security reasons.
In the past few years, I’ve seen the mushrooming of movies tackling the issue of homosexuality in conservative Asia (mostly in Chinese culture); Happy Together, Saving Face and my all time favourite, The Wedding Banquet by Ang Lee. None of them has the same kind of impact as Mehta’s Fire for the reasons below.
First of all, perhaps being a woman, Mehta has a clear understanding and empathy for the oppression of women’s rights and liberty in patriarchal societies such as India. Unlike most of the other movies bearing the same genre as mentioned above, the two main characters, Radha and Sita, are not lesbians to begin with. In fact, they are both married to two brothers.
Radha, the older of the two women, is married to Ashok, a man who devotes his life to celibacy after discovering Radha’s inability to bear any children. Although Ashok appears to be a kind and good husband, he fails to provide the one thing which could make Radha feels like a woman. Not only that, he subjects her to engage in cruel bedroom ritual by forcing her to lie beside him without touching her, as a test to his own purity. This goes on for thirteen years of their marriage together.
Sita, on the other hand, is married to Jatin, by way of an arranged marriage. Jatin is in love with another woman and in many ways, continues to keep his affair with the woman openly. Thus, Sita begins her loveless married life in complete loneliness and isolation.
Thankfully, due to Sita’s unconventional and modern spirit, she refuses to succumb further to the family’s expectations, mainly as a baby-making machine in order to compensate for Radha and Ashok’s infertility. She soon adapts to her new environment by finding comfort and solidarity in Radha.
Hence, a discovery journey begins for two lonely women whose lives are bound by strict cultural duties and expectations. They begin to learn, explore and embrace the meaning of love, sexuality and individual identity.
From the storyline, I feel that Mehta has managed to explore much deeper into the complexity of human relationships, especially those from the same sex. While we each has the ability to feel threatened by each other, we also have the ability to find love and fulfilment when there is none to be found from the member of the opposite sex.
The movie begs to ask the question whether women are able to cross the line from sisterhood into something which is much more intense and intimate? If yes, is it morally wrong then?
The other interesting aspect of the movie is its strong portrayal of our desperate need for physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy despite our moral and cultural restrictions or obligations. Mehta clearly has no inhibitions in showing the reality and flaws of human nature. There is one particular scene where Mundu, a servant who feels unappreciated and neglected, masturbates enthusiastically while watching a porn movie in front of Biji, the mute and paralyzed matriarch. What would normally be considered as a distasteful act in many cinematography touching on conservative culture, Mehta was bold enough to display the realistic side of human life.
Once again, Mehta has consistently proven her ability as a visionary and courageous movie director of our time. Not only that, her trilogy were all beautifully filmed despite the ugliness of its subject matter. Her combination of artistic realism has made each movie worth watching again and again.