Love at First Slight

The rebellious heroines of Deepa Mehta's Fire have gotten viewers in the filmmaker's native India a lot more worked up than Thelma and Louise ever dreamed of doing here. While women are applauding, hundreds of thousands of Indian husbands apparently see the picture as a threat to their happy homes. At a film festival in Trivandum, one furious man even told Mehta: "I'm going to shoot you, madam."

What's the rub?
Half a century after gaining independence, India's deepest division is still between the powerful and the powerless--and that division still rules millions of arranged marriages in the country's huge and growing middle class. In Mehta's profound and deeply comic film, we meet one tentacular New Delhi family that personifies the problem. Radha (Shabana Azmi) remains dutiful to her husband, Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda), despite thirteen years of imposed sexual and emotional detachment. But when Ashok's arrogant younger brother, Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi), brings his beautiful virgin bride, Sita (Nandita Das), into the household, the dynamics of tradition and desire begin to change radically. Jatin, who fancies himself quite the playboy, refuses to give up his Chinese girlfriend for the trifle of marriage. The innocent but forward-thinking Sita soon becomes disillusioned. And almost before we know it, the neglected Sita and her new sister-in-law liberate themselves from their foolish husbands and set aflame an exotic love for each other.

So alien to Indian history is their attraction that, as Sita says, "there's no word in our language for what we are."

The women are cooks in the tiny family restaurant. They are lovers. And in their way, they are revolutionaries. It's not difficult to find in Fire a rich metaphor for a society that is still breaking free from the old colonial bonds as well as its sexual shackles. Indeed, the film's fifth main character is the dictatorial brothers' ancient, snowy-haired mother, Biji (Kushal Rekhi), who's been felled by a stroke but still lets her every need and complaint be known by ringing a little brass bell. If anything, Biji embodies stifling tradition even more fiercely than her feckless sons; make what you will of the fact that she's paralyzed and mute.

Beautifully paced and gorgeously photographed (by Giles Nuttgens), this thoughtful and surprisingly witty tale of passion and paradox gives Westerners another welcome glimpse into a nation of 950 million people that in the coming decades will overtake China as the world's most populous. The great director Satyajit Ray first opened the door, and with films like Salaam Bombay! and Kama Sutra, Mira Nair has broadened the view. Let's hope the film-festival protesters continue to misplace their pistols and that Deepa Mehta's next films also make their way to the United States. She's fresh air.


Written and directed by Deepa Mehta. With Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Kulbushan Kharbanda and Jaaved Jaaferi.


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