Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On fire

Courtesy - Daily News by Ruwini Jayawardana

The first part of Deepa Mehta’s renowned Elements Trilogy, ‘Fire’ is a gently pacing yet powerful story which goes along the themes of duty, desires and choices. It explores the suppressed aspirations of Indian housewives and the roles which their traditional society wishes them to play.

The story begins with the arrival of the newly wed Sita to her husband, Jatin’s house. A town bred lass, Sita, is much more open to issues like genre equality. She becomes increasingly affectionate towards her sister-in-law, the oppressed Radha, whose husband had retired into a life of celibacy because they cannot beget a child. Sita too discovers that Jatin is in love with Julie, a freedom-loving Asian Indian. This is reflected by his preference to Kung Fu films at the beginning while Sita claims to be a romantic at heart because she is enthralled by the Taj Mahal.

Since both women are badly hurt by their husbands’ negligence, they become fast friends. They try to keep their intimacy shielded from the watchful eye of their bed-ridden grandmother, Biji and their sly servant, Mundu. As their intimacy grows Radha and Sita learn to question their fate, acknowledge their needs and right to sexuality.

Interestingly Jatin and Ashok begin to take notice of their wives only after they each discover that the women had gone beyond the boundaries of conservation. Jatin enforces despicable arrogance on Sita after she shows a burst of temper while the short-sighted Ashok tries to force Radha into repentance by taking her to his swami. Otherwise the women are reduced to mere showpieces and objects which are used for child breeding and housekeeping.

An interesting point of the tale is the presence of Mundu. He represents another complex layer of the family’s establishment. The silent Biji is another member who had been included to heighten the tension of the tale. Her constant bell-ringing not only adds to the comedy but also shows the attitude of the older generation towards the fast changing ideas of the younger crowd.

Though many have referred to ‘Fire’ as a lesbian love story, it is only a strand which links the themes of oppression, loneliness and social hypocrisy. Repeated references to the ‘Ramayana’, the epic tale in which Sita, Prince Rama’s wife has to undergo trials of celibacy adds to the irony. The scene in which she has to walk into a flame proves her purity. Similarly Radha survives going up in flames as Ashok drives her out of their home. The Karva Chauth festival in which women starve to invoke long life for their husbands too is symbolic of Radha’s regard towards her husband of 15 years even though he had allowed religion to come between them.

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das should be commended for their outstanding performances as Radha and Sita. Jaaved Jaaferi, Kulbushan Kharbanda, Ranjit Chowdhry and Kushal Rekhi complete the cast of excellent actors which set ‘Fire’ on fire.

At first take you may think that the central point of the film is that the women are made to suffer in the patriarchal setup but dig deeper and you will realise that each of the characters are victims struggling between tradition and their individual happiness. It is a bittersweet drama which relates how people can finally see the ocean through their mind’s eye if they would loosen themselves from restrictions.