Canada - 1996

Movie Review By Andrea Chase

Deepa Mehta's powerful film "Fire" is suffused with flame, literally and metaphorically. Fire, that is, as in passion and playing with and trial by.

It opens with newly married couple Sita and Jatan strolling the grounds of the Taj Mahal. After listening to a tour guide tell the wildly romantic story of how the Taj came to be, Sita asks her husband if he likes romantic movies. He replies disdainfully that he prefers the Kung Fu variety. Not a good sign. Even if we weren't told, it wouldn't be hard to figure out that this was an arranged marriage and though both entered into it out of a sense of traditional family duty, one party was less than willing.

Things go downhill from there. Jatan takes his new bride home to his extended family and promptly leaves to visit his mistress. Left alone, the lively though disappointed Sita soon bonds with her sister-in-law, Rada, a woman also left to fend for herself, though her husband spends HIS evenings with his Swami, a man who preaches abstinence and warns that desire is the root of all evil. But he's only got it partly right. It's the suppression of desire that causes all the trouble. And as Sita's marriage is a farce, and Rada's has become an exercise is asceticism, her life as barren as her womb, what eventually happens between them can hardly be called a surprise.

Writer/director Mehta has made an engrossing, beautifully crafted, film. Beyond its sensuality lurks an allegory for India, struggling with tradition versus modernity and women's peculiar place within that struggle. Sita presents a world of choices to Rada, instead of rigid boundaries. Their language has no word for how they feel, or their culture a place for them, but by creating both, they can achieve independence for themselves for the first time in their lives.

Sally Tisdale, an insightful writer on subjects erotic, once wrote at length about the phenomenon of being surprised by desire. If I didn't know better, I'd think she'd written that with "Fire" in mind.

© 1997 Andrea Chase Air Date: 9/24/97

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