The Lesbian Movie Marathon: Fire (1997)

Directed by Deepa Mehta

An independent-minded young woman named Sita agrees to an arranged marriage and moves to the city to live with her husband’s family, which includes his brother, Ashok, Ashok’s dutiful wife, Radha, Sita’s disabled mother-in-law, Biji, and the family servant, Mundu.   Her arrival soon acts as a catalyst, bringing the simmering tensions beneath the surface of family life to a crisis.

Sita discovers that her husband, Jatin, is in love with a Chinese woman called Julie who has refused to marry him because she doesn’t want to take on the role of a traditional Indian wife.  It becomes apparent that Jatin has only agreed to marry her under pressure from Ashok who wants an heir for the family because Radha is infertile.   Turning to a guru for consolation, Ashok has taken a vow of celibacy, but still subjects Radha to humiliating experiences in which he uses her to “test” his sexual control.

As Radha and Sita bond and then find themselves falling in love with each other, they also begin question the traditions that have shaped their lives and slowly start to stand up to their respective husbands.   Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das are brilliant in their roles as two passionate women trying to maintain their dignity in a degrading situation.   But there aren’t really any villains in the film; it shows that everyone in the family is trapped by tradition, which seems to be represented in the silent but vigilant figure of Biji who rings her bell loudly whenever she disapproves of anything.

This is a powerfully honest film.  It isn’t shy about the realities of life and some of the scenes are gritty and quite disturbing.   But it’s also beautifully shot and directed throughout.

The way the film uses Hindu mythology is very clever, reinventing the story of Sita, whose husband insisted that she be tested by fire to prove her purity.  It does have a bit of a “fantasy lesbian ending”, but after all the grittiness, that’s ok with me.

It caused riots on its release in India and was banned in Pakistan.

Fire is a brave, honest and passionate film that I’d highly recommend viewing.