The Mehtaphor of Fire

Deepa Mehta taken to task
By Ameen Merchant

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Trial by Fire Productions
Written and Directed by Deepa Mehta

Try addressing Mythology, Patriarchy, Arranged Marriage, Lesbian Desire, Nationalism, Religious Fundamentalism, Sufi Mysticism, and some real abstract personal memory-stuff in green fields—all of it within an hour and forty-four minutes—and what do you have? You have a somewhat brave and a more than somewhat flawed film called Fire.

Not to say that one can't address these issues adequately on film, for it has been done before (Shyam Benegal's Kalyug, and Kumar Sahani's Tarang are two films which addressed similar issues, except homosexual love), but for these links to work in an intellectually persuasive manner, all the narrative trajectories have to be given a fair amount of time to develop and convince; for textual complexity has less to do with the formal technique of layering, and more to do with the thoroughness of insights explored within each layer.

Recent diasporic South Asian films—of which Fire is the latest—that have attempted to address some of these discourses have revealed a basic formula at work behind their plots. And it is a formula which takes the 'metaphor of fragmentation' a little too literally. The work preditably sizzles in that now too recognisable 'universal' way, but almost always leaves one with a bad case of post-modern indigestion. I am thinking here of films like Srinivas Krishna's Masala, Amarjit Rattan's The Burning Season, and Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala. Nair summed up the recipe rather succinctly in the theme line for her film: "Tradition. Passion. Mix it up!"

And that's all it takes, it would seem, to put together this market-driven Aloo-Globey mix, in which the ingredients, besides competent technical packaging are: an exotic location (sometimes the diasporic South Asian community stands in for this,) loads of Ramayan and Krishnayan, a few apparently transgressive racial and sexual liasions, a nostalgia for Geeta Dutt ditties, and a family at the centre which is genetically warm and melodramatic. The women in these films are often young, dark, and seductive and find themselves lost between two worlds; and the men, typically loud or silent patriarchs, or better still, ludicrous buffoons. Sometimes there's parody, sometimes there's tragedy, but there's always a hundred per cent chance of a feel good humanist ending.

Deepa Mehta's Fire cooks all of the above.

Fire focuses on an 'Indian' family. Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) have been married for more that 15 years. They live with Ashok's mother, Biji (that old woman figure who in now de rigeur in the films of the South Asian diaspora), her other son, Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi), and a houseboy, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry). This is what we know about them (clues of 'indianness'): Ashok is on a spiritual quest to abandon all desire and spends a lot of time with a nameless swami; he even sets aside a sum from the profits of the family's food take-out business for the godman's hydrociles operation; he has not had sexual relations with his wife in years. Radha has "No eggs in the ovary, Madam," meaning she is sterile, and can't have children; when she is not kneading flour for 'to-go' parathas, she is busy sponging and powdering the old ma-in-law with glum-faced dutifulness; yes, she has been miserable for a very long time. Biji rings a bell when she needs something (she can be quite demanding); she likes watching the Ramayan— particularly Sita's Trial by Fire' incident, which she has seen only-Ram-knows how many times. Jatin operates a video library from a part of the take-out space; he is a fan of kung-fu movies, and thinks Jackie Chan is God; he has a Chinese girlfriend who loves nailpolish and feeds him sweet and sour prawns from daintily held chopsticks. Mundu is definitely from the lower castes (the way he speaks english should tell you that); he masturbates watching pornography—right in the presence of the grand-dame; he is secretly in love with Radha but knows the class divide between them is too wide to bridge (we have to infer this from the way flaps his rubber slippers); he urinates on historical monuments (this is unambiguous).

What we would like to know about them is: Who are these people?

But to answer that question would be to cinematically prevent this 'family' from attaining an 'allegorical' status, and that's the way Mehta wants us to see them. They are a "metaphor for the major transitions taking place across the entire subcontinent of India today," so it is only logical that they occupy a milieu-free geography and speak english. If the framework of the parable is indeed a self conscious choice, then Mehta is oblivious to the limitations of such a narrative form. Fire flirts with some very serious social discourses of power and oppression that the structure of the parable cannot adequately contain. And some of these issues are historically too complex and urgent to be reduced to the realm of metaphors. Mehta's decision to work revolution from within this decidedly romantic and conservative framework (with just a veneer of social realism) also poses some dangerous consequences for a cause that is obviously very close to her: giving name, form and voice to Lesbian desire in a South Asian context.

If this is what giving voice to lesbian desire is all about, then silence begins to seem like a sensible option!

Here's how it plays out: Sita (Nandita Das), enters the family as Jatin's new bride. She is a young, spirited and rebellious Indian woman of the 90's. We know this right from the outset, for as soon as they are back from their honeymoon, she changes into her husband's jeans, turns up the stereo, lights up a cigarette and swings to western pop. Of course, all of this is done with a sense of parody, for such is the stereotype of 'free' women in India (they may look Indian, butthey really are from the West!). Neglected by their husbands (one tending to his guru, and the other cavorting with his Chinese girlfriend) and stifled by boredom and loneliness, Sita and Radha begin a reluctant sexual relationship which grows into love. It also becomes a source of escape for them, smothered as they are by middle class (I am guessing big time here as Mehta provides no class clues whatsoever), Hindu orthodoxy and oppression. They exchange bangles, tie manath threads at Sufi dargahs, and empower each other. Disclosures and dilemmas follow and very soon they arrive at a point from where there are only two destinations in sight: back to heterosexuality, or a trial by fire—and if one survives this—into the arm's of the lesbian lover. Radha courageously opts for the latter and nearly gets burned. But finally everything works itself out and the lovers, drenched by heavenly rain, are united under the sheltering archways of the Nizamuddin Auliya mausoleum. End credits as A.R. Rahman fades in a portentous drum beat.

But what has actually happened, you will notice on closer scrutiny, is that the two women have merely been displaced from one fabled space into another. Where did these women come from and where will they go? That's an impertinent question, for the parable is free of contextual specificity and politics, (although there is a lot of posturing here,) and is only committed to transcendental apolitical didacticism. But if one extends the logic of the 'metaphor,' does this not also suggest that lesbians are creatures of fantasy, and their lives and realities not rooted in any material or historical contexts of negotiation and struggle with oppression? How could this be a representation of any lesbian 'reality,' when the site of its location is a fabled and abstract space, that just happens to look like New Delhi? If this is what giving voice to lesbian desire is all about, then silence begins to seem like a sensible option!

Yet that's not all: never do we know if Radha has ever had to suppress lesbian desires in the past; or if she has only just discovered its existence; or is it lesbian desire by default— given that she's incapable of having children and that her husband (who is more of a brother now) doesn't have sex with her anymore. All we know in the end is that she loves Sita for her "compassion, warmth, and her body, and she is doing this for herself, and not for anyone else!" What one is never quite sure about is whether this is a decision based on sexuality or circumstance.

And if all this makes Sita look like one big incidental convenience, it's because the poor thing has no context of lesbian identity either. Was Sita born lesbian? Has she had previous lesbian relationships, even though there is no word to describe same-sex bonds in Indian languages (she knows that). What if her husband weren't such a one emotion freak (it's called 'karate') and loved her as much as he loved the arranged marriage convention? Would lesbian desire still exist? Considering the miserable condition of these women in Fire, their lesbian relationship seems not only inevitable, it also feels significantly overdetermined.

Mehta subscribes to the theory that lesbians are a purely circumstantial phenomena. And it is their understanding of patriarchy...and its oppressive history that makes them, not just feminists, but lesbians.

Now consider this scenario too: Radha, a happily married, sexually satisfied mother of three discovers she has lesbian feelings for her sister-in-law, and finds herself caught in a dilemma of choosing...Ah, now we're talking a different kind of lesbian and political film— which, unfortunately, Fire is not.

And the problem lies with Mehta's understanding of lesbian-feminism(s). In Mehta's understanding (as presenced in the film) lesbian-feminism is the ultimate weapon of the international feminist movement. Woman loving woman is not only a more equal and more rebellious scenario of patriarchal rejection, it is also a 'pure' condition, uncontaminated by other socio-historic influences and discourses. If such an understanding of lesbian subjectivity and desire (anywhere and of any sort) reveals anything at all, it reveals the abstract and fetishistic overworking of a heterosexual-feminist imagination. And what's more it sends out an alarmist message to heterosexual South Asian men, which says, "Buddhu, pay attention or else she will leave you for a woman." All of it hauntingly ironic considering Mehta's eagerness to 'realise' the existence of the autonomous lesbian subject amidst us!

By now it should be clear that Mehta subscribes to the theory that lesbians are a purely circumstantial phenomena. And it is their understanding of patriarchy (also a very 'universal,' and non-descript version here) and its oppressive history that makes them, not just feminists, but lesbians. Simply put, patricarchy is a pre-condition for lesbian subjectivity. While it is a fact that there is a chapter within the world lesbian community that subscribes to a communal, women-only agenda and ideology, it is a gross misrepresentation to insist that all lesbian desire is constructed in opposition to and, in recognition of, patriarchal oppression. I personally believe this theory co-opts all other lesbian and feminist subjectivities.

But it is this monolithic understanding that Mehta subscribes to most passionately—at times even sensationally. Proof? The endless allusions to the Ramayan, the many 'Trial by Fire' dramatisations, the Karva Chauth fast and farce, and the pathetic and lame caricatures that pass for Indian men in the film. I mean, if one can only make a case for lesbian desire by depicting all the men as insensitive morons, then I say, "Why bother with it at all in the first place?" But patriarchy (without which 'lesbianism' can never be) should hang around it seems. And even a benign 'sufi' variety will do. For how else can we explain the curiosity that both Radha and Sita, victims of Hindu chauvinism and orthodoxy find joy, peace and sanctuary in the Sufi tradition of Islam? I admit that selectivity is an important component of the creative process.

However, does it not also possess the power to produce its own meanings? To pay homage to the secular, composite cultures of India in these troubled times is indeed a noble sentiment, but to play off Islamic Heterodoxy (which is just as patriarchal) against Hindu Revisionism is to manipulate, distort and misrepresent these religions outside their historicity. Never mind the architectural splendour or the transcendental spirit of Qu'waalis.

If anything works at all in this overwrought, impressionistic mumbo-jumbo, it is the scenes of romance between the two women. The intimate moments between Radha and Sita are beautifully picturised—particularly the terrace exchanges where Mehta's script celebrates the love and spirit of sisterhood. And it is in these scenes, washed as they are in the rich hues of saffron and red, that the metaphor of Fire becomes erotically and scorchingly palpable. The same does not apply to the rest of the script or for that matter even the performances. Shabana Azmi certainly brings activist respectability and credibility to the idea of a lesbian role, which may go a long way in making 'lesbianism' even remotely acceptable to heterosexual and homophobic South Asians. Her association with the project is thus both laudable and reassuring.

As far as her performance in the film is concerned, however, she seems to have simply borrowed a few pages from her character in Mrinal Sen's Khandar (her best to date,) and wrapped her up in some new sarees (one even has a tiranga border!). Kulbhushan Kharbanda delivers what might just be his most constipated performance to date; chewing on every syllable of the english language as though it were an excellent source of dietary fibre. And Ranjit Chowdhry astonishes with his ability to play the same 'Indian' stereotype, in the same way, again and again. Show me one Indian man who speaks or behaves like him, and I will accept I have never really lived there for 26 years of my life! It is Nandita Das who carries the film on her bold and mischievous shoulders. So fresh, endearing and devoid of affectation is her portrayal of Sita, it makes you happy that at least somebody is having fun in this allegory gone maha awry.

I will not deny that Fire is an important film— if only because it is the first film to attempt a dramatic legitimation of homosexual love and desire, in a mainstream South Asian context. And there's no doubt in my mind that it will generate a lot of discussion and debate which is always a good thing. But to celebrate it as a revolutionary film or to pedestalise it for its apparent courage (especially if you are a gay or lesbian South Asian,) is also to participate in what can only be termed as self-exoticising from within. For bear this in mind: Deepa Mehta's Fire is a parable. And our lives all too specific and real to be simply imagined as metaphors.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Ameen Merchant
Ameen Merchant is an author.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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