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Now There's Two Heroines in One Kitchen:
Lesbianism and Me(h)tafilmic Discourse in
Deepa Mehta's Fire

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Irina Negrea
Lehigh University

Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta released Fire in 1996. The reception in India was divided between enthusiasm and violent criticism, turning Fire into a highly controversial film. In the making of Fire, Mehta uses "traditional" filmic narrative in order to convey her views on the institution of marriage to as many members of the audience as possible. The plot revolves around two Indian women living in a joint family. Radha and Sita have serious marriage problems: Radha's husband, Ashok, accuses her of being barren, so he takes a vow of celibacy that lasts 13 years, while Sita's husband, Jatin, has a long-time mistress and is not invested at all in his new marriage. Jatin's marriage is more than likely arranged by Ashok, his older brother. Radha seems resigned to her loveless life, but when Sita comes along, she realizes that both of them have choices outside the marriage: they turn to each other and begin a love affair. The end of the film leaves Sita and Radha together and away from their husbands. Director Deepa Mehta uses this relatively simple plot to express her views on marriage as an oppressive structure of Indian society. However, the underlying message of this film is what makes it truly subversive of oppressive structures: Mehta proposes lesbianism and relationships between women as active choices that offer a safe alternative to the deep disappointment caused by marriage. She uses metafilmic discourse in order to emphasize the discrepancy between the highly romanticized image of heterosexual love (always validated by marriage) that mainstream Hindi movies are selling to women, and the grim reality of an often arranged marriage. Any viewer who is not familiar with Hindi movies and customs would miss the subtlety of Mehta's metafilmic discourse. The director clearly addresses her film to Indian women; however, there are universal symbols of oppression that speak to all women, so–to use Teresa de Laurentis's expression–Fire is a film that addresses its spectator as a woman, defining all points of identification as "female, feminine, or feminist" (294), discussing, among other issues, the subtle disintegration of the Indian institution of marriage.

"Destroying Indian Culture" as We Know It: Fire and Its Reception in India

An examination of how the film was received in India reveals information about the nature of marriage, patriarchy, and the situation of women in Indian culture. Randip Panesar reports that after the release of the film in India, Mehta was given a 24-hour police armed guard after she received death threats (1). Fire was banned in the state of Maharashtra (where Bollywood—the largest film industry in the world is located), while members of the Shiv Sena, a nationalist extremist political movement, picketed the movie theaters where Fire was shown, attacking the audience and vandalizing the venues (1). The sabotaging of the film went so far that a number of movie theaters had to stop the shows. When asked about the reception of the film in India, Mehta revealed in her interviews that "Indian women, by and large, have been nothing less than enthusiastic about Fire. Yes, for ‘exposing' the hypocrisy in our society, but more meaningfully for them, for showing the secret lives we all lead" ("Zeitgeist Films Online"). Mehta's film shows a side of Indian society that is carefully hidden by the patriarchal oppressive structures of marriage. The film ruthlessly exposes this side, "with all its vulnerabilities, foibles, and the incredible, extremely dramatic battle that is waged daily between the forces of tradition and the desire for an independent individual voice" ("Zeitgeist"). The story is about ordinary people, and as such, it is deeply unsettling to men, as it talks about the choices that ordinary women have (and could make) outside marriage, thus eroding its apparently invincible status.

The double standard in Indian society is discussed by most of the articles dedicated to the film. Kalpana Sharma notes that the message of Fire is focused on the inequality of the patriarchal system that allows men to seek pleasure or salvation elsewhere–either in the arms of another woman, like Jatin, or in search of God, like Ashok–while women do not seem to have choices (1). Apart from exposing the double standard, Fire shows the power that women have when they get together and decide to become independent. Sharma continues to say that whenever women rebel against the mainstream, they are viciously attacked and accused of "destroying Indian culture" (2). In another interview, Mehta states that her intention was to find a place for women in a society "where a woman is a mother, a daughter, a sister or wife, but never a woman (for herself)" (Sharma 2). Her statement emphasizes the dependent nature of the Indian woman who has to define herself only in relation to others, while more often than not, the "others" are men.

Shiv Sena is the principal Indian nationalist group that violently opposed the film in India. In an interview, the leader of this group, Bal Thackeray, is vehemently against the film, since he considers it is "not a part of Indian culture" ( Raval 82). Thackeray argues that "in the name of art and progressive intellectualism you can't manipulate and corrupt tender minds. Tomorrow it might start in all ladies hostels. It's a sort of social AIDS" (78-9). His words convey not only the homophobic representation of homosexuality seen as a "contagious" and "deadly disease" but also the unexpressed but nevertheless strong anxiety that there are choices for women outside marriage, should they be willing to make them. And these choices are likely to erode the apparently monolithic structure of patriarchy in the Indian society. Fear is the reason why the Shiv Sena and others like them do not want Mehta's idea and vision to spread, since they show how women can achieve power when they band together (even in "ladies hostels").

Fire has indeed shaken the status-quo in India, since in an article that appeared after its release, Peter Popham notes how the film has literally brought out the lesbians of India:

In the process, almost in the background, India's lesbians have been emerging, grasping the opportunity to show India that they do not have fangs and talons, that they are Indian, too; and moreover that India has always had homosexuals, and that ancient Indian culture acknowledged and honored them. (13)

The film was seen as an opportunity for lesbians to "come out" in public and assert their identity as part of the Indian heritage that had previously censored anything that expressed female subjectivity. One of India's few outspoken lesbians, Geti Thadani, adds that not only is Fire the first "women's film" in India but it also depicts a phenomenon that occurs in Indian families:

A couple of years ago I worked for a lesbian helpline. Ninety per cent of calls were from women in small towns who had to keep the relationship secret. Very many of them had relationships within extended families, like those in Fire. (Popham 14)

This may be the reason why the film was so enthusiastically received by Indian women and so violently attacked mostly by men. Mehta speaks about choices that women have apart from the oppressive structure of marriage that is the cornerstone of Indian society, and she also speaks about the power that women have when they unite. The fears of the opponents of Fire should be more than justified, since the film has already had such an impact on the public. Almost any opposition to the status quo that came from women had been silenced so far, and Mehta shows that patriarchy has insidious means to do it: the ambiguity that surrounds sexuality, "the weight of figures (especially female ones) from ancient scriptures which define Indian women as pious, dutiful, and self-sacrificing," and the "Indian popular cinema, aka ‘Bollywood' [that] portrays women as sex objects" (Mehta in Zeitgeist).

The Indian film industry has an enormous influence on Indian mentality. It is fitting, therefore, that is shold be used to reinforce norms and oppressive structures, distorting them so that they are accepted by the majority of women without question. From 1896 until today, "Bollywood"–-as the film industry in India has come to be known–-has soared, becoming the most prolific film industry in the world. DesiClub.com states that the number of films produced every year by Bollywood is five times higher than the amount of Hollywood films. The objectification and fetishization of women in Indian films are obvious, especially in the song and dance scenes, where the actress changes her outfit several times in 5-10 minutes, covering and uncovering different body parts. In Indian films, the emphasis falls heavily on family traditions and chastity. According to Robert Marquand, a staggering majority of these films use the formula of "boy meets girl, unless of course girl meets boy. They fall in love amid mild adversity and much song and dance. They marry and live blissfully ever after" (1). The formula that poses heterosexuality and marriage as the norm is also enveloped in the rosy colors of romantic love and the possibility of fulfillment that exists for both partners.

By projecting the ideals of romantic, fulfilling, and reciprocated love along with heterosexual marriage and motherhood, Indian films support the control machinery of patriarchy. Heterosexuality gives men direct contact with women and it also chains them to the home and away from other women. Fire is a film that exposes how the Bollywood productions indoctrinate women with the ideal of a romantic love marriage and how bitter the disappointment is when they realize that the reality is completely different. Sita is the one who experiences the disappointment; however, once married, it seems that she has no way out of the cage. According to Indian anthropologist M. N. Srinivas, who notes that in the Hindu tradition, a husband is not only the wife's master, but "her deity" (148). Married women in India are completely dependent on their husbands,

In Fire, Mehta sees the necessity of opening a dialogue about what choices Indian women have when the marriage turns out to be nothing like what they saw in the Bollywood productions. In the film, Ashok is actually very much the husband that Srinivas describes, except that he does not divorce Radha for being barren, although he does make her feel guilty for it. Mehta emphasizes the fact that men always have choices when the marriage turns out to be disappointing. Ashok's relationship with Swamiji as an alternative to his childless marriage has homoerotic overtones, emphasized by Mehta's editing: a cut from Jatin kissing his mistress's foot to Ashok massaging Swamiji's feet is one telling example. The implication of Mehta's message is that men have multiple choices outside marriage, one of them being a homosexual relationship, despite the strong arguments that homosexuality is not a part of Indian culture, according to Jeremy Seabrook (7). In Fire, men and women enter marriage with different definitions: Sita and Radha expect a fulfilling relationship, but Jatin and Ashok see marriage as a set of rules that dictate a certain conduct and they both expect their wives to conform to the rules. The notion of duty is forced and reinforced in the film Fire as well by Ashok, who wants to see his wife, Radha, behave like a typical Hindu wife: "You should be touching my feet!"

"We Can Find Choices:" Fire, Me(h)tafilmic Discourse, and Lesbianism

One of the first scenes of the film shows to Sita and Jatin, newly married and on their honeymoon at Taj Mahal. Westerners who are unfamiliar with the landmark are told in the film that it was built at the order of a king who mourned the death of his wife and wanted to show the world how much he loved her. A familiar symbol of heterosexual love, Taj Mahal is juxtaposed with the relationship between Jatin and Sita, which is as far away as possible from harmony and reciprocation. Although it is not specified in the film, the viewer realizes that theirs is an arranged marriage, and at the time of their visit to Taj Mahal they had been married for just two days and hardly know each other. There is already a trace of coldness and indifference on the part of Jatin in the way he acts and reacts to Sita, who obviously tries to make the best of the situation. The image that Mehta chooses to let the audience know that their marriage is doomed is very suggestive. It is shot from a dark room with the camera pointed to the doorway. The doorway overlooks the Taj Mahal in all it's splendor while Sita appears in the doorway, projected alone against the monument. The spectator views the monument from a distance, as if Mehta is trying to tell her viewers that the ideal it embodies is not attainable in the conditions present in the Indian society. The words of the guide add to Mehta's undermining of marriage and heterosexuality, as he continues to tell the story of the Taj Mahal. After it was built, the king had the architect's hands cut off, to make sure there would never be another monument of its kind. The architect drilled a hole in the roof to get his revenge, and told the king that the symbol of his eternal love was "forever flawed." Whether it is true or not, the story sends a clear message to the viewer as to how "perfect" a marriage can be. Heterosexuality seems to be compromised from the very beginning of Fire, and is persistently undermined by the director.

Mehta's critique of Bollywood movies that distort reality and give the wrong picture of women is also present in the beginning of the film. When they are walking toward the Taj Mahal, Sita tells Jatin that her "absolute favorite" movie was filmed on that location, and she asks her husband whether he likes romantic films. When he answers that he does not, she is amazed, as if there are no other kinds of films: "What kind of movies do you like?" she asks. It is very interesting that soon after this conversation, Sita asks her husband another question, "Don't you like me?" Sita's question points to the way she acquires gender identification through men; in other words, through her sexuality. Like many other women, Sita has internalized the process of self definition through the eyes of a man. As Catharine McKinnon writes, "what defines woman as such is what turns men on" (530-31). Sita has been forced to define her own womanhood in this way, and in a society where heterosexuality is compulsory and women are under control, this definition is internalized. Radha goes through the same process; the source of her depression and disappointment is that her husband refuses her intimacy and that he does not find her attractive any more. Sita, on the other hand, does not linger too long on this type of self-definition, and this is what saves both women. However, in the beginning of the film, she obviously has a certain opinion about marriage that comes from her favorite romantic films; she defines marriage in a different way than does Indian society. If a "good marriage" means conformity to certain rules of conduct in society, films define marriage from the qualitative angle, as fulfilling relationships based on reciprocated romantic love.

The contrast between these two definitions of marriage is expressed in the metafilmic discourse of Fire at all levels; Mehta wants the viewer to realize the impact that Hindi films have on Indian society and how they are used to control women. The family owns a video rental store, so movies seem to be the means of subsistence for everybody. It is significant, though, that only the men have access to the video store; the two women are relegated in the kitchen in the back of the store since the movie renting business is supplemented with a take-out business. Mehta connects visual gratification with oral gratification, as the two scenes that show the store at its busiest time indicate that the customers rent movies and buy food as well. Out of all the customers, only one is a woman and the rest are men or young boys. Mehta connects male visual gratification with oral gratification; in another scene, Radha recalls a saying that she has learned from her mother, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach." In the economic structure of the family, women are the ones who have to cook and nourish, and this aspect of their lives has been turned into an aspect of femininity. The close association between men, sex, and food is connected by Mehta with the association between male visual pleasure and oral pleasure. This is why the video rental business is so successful in Fire, since Jatin has a whole collection of pornographic movies in stock for "special clients."

Pornography and food go hand in the male world in making women the economic and sexual slaves of men. Coward notes that this association has sadistic overtones, since "there's a language of devouring, gobbling up, feasting with the eyes, a language which suggests the desire not only to eat but perhaps to destroy the loved object" (89). The relationship between oral gratification and visual gratification, both provided by women, legitimizes the exploitation of women by men. The scene in which Jatin entices a group of young boys with a pornographic movie (even "better" than Basic Instinct) and a cold soda is telling of the ways in which these associations are ingrained into the men's minds from a very young age. Jatin also seems to have a fulfilling relationship with his Chinese mistress, Julie, who appears to be a "liberated" woman, since she refuses marriage. However, her aspiration to become an actress in Hong Kong Kung-Fu movies speaks about her will to objectify herself, since that seems to be the main role of a woman in such movies. The scene at the restaurant when Jatin eats dinner with Julie and her father is illuminating for the way Mehta associates food with sex, since Julie is feeding Jatin. In another scene, Jatin talks about his obsession with Julie's mouth, which he likens to a rose bud. Both scenes demonstrate that their relationship is not free from exploitation or fetishization

The space of the video store on the first floor of the house is also filled with movie posters. Mehta allows the viewer to see them in the scene when Jatin tells Sita that he is not coming home that night (and it is already a known fact that he is spending his nights at Julie's). Behind Jatin, two movie posters attract attention: one entitled Hum dono, which in Hindi means "The Two of Us," and Kartavya, which is a Hindi word that means "duty" and is frequently used to express "woman's duty." The juxtaposition of these two movies is ironic, since the obviously romantic overtones of the former clash with the glorification of female duty that is expressed by the latter and with the reality that both women experience in Fire. In the story of the extended family there is no heterosexual "two of us," since both Radha and Sita have deeply disappointing relationships with their husbands; however, duty is persistently imposed by Ashok on the two women.

The movie songs that are used by Mehta in her film, apart form the original soundtrack, accentuate the juxtaposition between the dreary family life and the ideal image projected by the films that launched these songs. The first scene that uses a song is significant in its subversion of heterosexuality. Right after Jatin and Sita return from their honeymoon, Jatin leaves to meet Julie, while Sita finds herself alone in his room. Jatin's room is an alien space for Sita, since the walls are full of Bruce Lee and Kung-Fu movie posters. It is a male space where she feels caged, as implied by the bars at the window. Right after she is left alone, she dresses in drag, puts the music on, and dances in front of the mirror. The song is sung by a female singer, and the translation of the few lyrics that are heard is "I immerse people into love/I intoxicate people with love." The fact that Sita masquerades as the singer indicates that she identifies with the song. When the words are applied to her marriage, Mehta's use of irony is evident: Jatin and Sita's marriage can hardly be considered an immersion into, or intoxication with, love. However, in retrospect, the song can be applied to the relationship that Sita and Radha start not too long after this scene, and that is how this particular song gets validated. Once again, heterosexuality is undermined and compromised in Mehta's film.

The use of drag by Sita has important effects in this scene, since Sita is evidently masquerading: her hair is down, she has a cigarette in her hand, and she is wearing Jatin's pants. She is laughing at and imitating what Judith Butler calls "the naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders," a "phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity" (21). In the Hindu society, compulsory heterosexuality is used to keep women under control, so gender is strictly coded sexually: what is "male" is "masculine," and what is "female" is "feminine." With the sexual coding comes the behavioral coding: a set of rules to which everybody–especially women–has to conform. Sita breaks these norms by wearing Jatin's pants. This scene questions the existence of sexually-coded gender and of the "phantasmatic" heterosexual ideal projected by the movies and the songs.

The second scene that uses a film song takes place at night. Radha and Sita meet on the terrace of the house. They both go there in the hope of finding a "room of their own," a space free from oppressive marital duty, a "no man's land," where they can be alone at first, and then with each other. It is significant that none of the men in the house come to the terrace throughout the film, which implies that there is a possibility for the two women to find a space that is their own. One evening, as Sita and Radha are on the terrace, a wedding procession is passing in the street. The band plays film music. It is interesting to notice that films are so influential in Hindu society that their music becomes a part of the marriage rituals. The song that the band plays tells of a groom who is on his way to the bride's house to pick her up and take her to his house. Mehta alludes to the passivity of the woman who becomes nothing else than an object of exchange between her father and her husband. There is a sharp contrast between the two women who are watching from the terrace and the noisy and merry-making wedding procession. The contrast comes from learning how disappointing a loveless marriage is and how duty weighs heavily on the wife from the very first day.

The very next scene opens up possibilities for both Sita and Radha. Perhaps the sight of the wedding procession has disturbed Sita, since she is in her room crying. Radha comes in to comfort her, and Sita kisses her on the mouth. The way in which Mehta filmed this scene is important, as the posters in the room (from Kung-Fu movies) make it clear that it is a male space, and that they are transgressing written and unwritten laws with their act. The fixed camera and the absence of subjective shots refuse the viewer any identification with the two characters. Mehta imposes a critical distance on the viewers, so that they use that critical space in order to reflect on what is happening to the two women who defy patriarchy. If Sita is the one that initiates the kiss, Radha seems scared and runs out of the room. However, in the next scene, Radha is looking at herself in the mirror and she is touching her lips, as if she cannot believe that she is still attractive. It is the beginning of Sita's and Radha's relationship, marked by the contradiction between the happiness and joy that the wedding song expresses and the grim reality of marriage that both women experience.

Mehta uses another movie song in the scene when Sita and Radha are role-playing. Sita is dressed up in drag, while Radha is very "feminine," wearing makeup and letting her hair down. They both dance and sing to another movie tune. Mehta's irony is visible for the viewer who understands the lyrics of the song. A woman sings to a man who wants her, but she knows that he is saying the same sweet words to other women. It is the play between the hunter and the hunted, and it acquires additional meanings in the scene. While in a heterosexual context, the "hunter" is clearly a man who overpowers the "hunted" (a woman), in this particular scene, the power balance is equal; it is Mehta's way of suggesting that lesbianism is one choice available to women in order to enter a relationship based on equality. Sita's wearing drag does not mean that she is taking a "male" role; on the contrary, she seems to suggest that gender is a construct into which women have been forced to step. She is masquerading and queering gender in order to show the possibility of the fulfilling relationship she can establish with Radha on equal terms. They are playfully enacting a heterosexual scenario that is often seen in Hindi movies: the man, bold and insistent, is wooing the woman and singing to her, while the woman is very shy, but at the same time, wants to give in. The difference that Mehta is suggesting in this scene between the heterosexual romance projected by the movies and the reality of duty imposed on the Hindu wife, lies in the "happily ever after," often alluded to in Hindi movies. This ending is possible, Mehta alludes, only in the case of a lesbian relationship.

The scene that immediately follows is juxtaposed by Mehta in order to emphasize the reality of compulsory heterosexuality. On a busy night in the video store with the music blaring, Jatin is enticing three very young boys with a porn tape. The song in the background–again, a movie tune–says, "This is the place where you give love and take love." It is ironic and disturbing that the place to "give and take love" is–for men–a video store offering porn movies that normalize the objectification of women. Mehta shows how men are taught from a very young age to be aware of their position of power and of the fact that women's duties are to feed and sexually service men. "Love" is given the wrong definition, and the effects are disastrous for women.

The metafilmic discourse of Fire contains other references to heterosexual porn movies. It is the director's way to indicate how their influence, combined with the influence of the mainstream Hindi movies, is part of the machinery that controls women in Indian society. The servant in the house, Mundu, is often asked to care for Biji, Ashok's and Jatin's mother, who is incapacitated by a stroke. Biji cannot speak, and the only way she can communicate is by ringing a bell. She is a silenced woman who is forced to depend on everybody else in the house, and especially on Mundu, for help. Her favorite film is Ramayana, the story of the powerful king Rama and of his wife, Sita. Every time Mundu is asked to stay with Biji, he is supposed to show her the film. However, Mundu takes porn movies from Jatin's collection and watches them, forcing Biji to watch them and to see him masturbating. As a silenced woman, Biji cannot do anything but ring her bell or make inarticulate sounds. Her position is symbolic of every oppressed woman's in the society Mehta describes.

One other interesting association is made by the comparison between the film Mundu is supposed to show Biji, Ramayana and what he actually shows her, porn. The story of Rama holds symbolic importance in Mehta's film. While the story itself is about the king Rama (considered to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and his life, Mehta's references to the story contain only the parts that tell what happened to Rama's wife, Sita. The similarity of names with one of the female characters is not a coincidence, as the viewer infers when the story of Ramayana is told by Mundu. After being kidnapped by a demon, Sita, Rama's wife, is rescued by her husband and comes home. However, the people of the kingdom doubt Sita's purity, since she has lived with the demon for a long time. Rama has his doubts as well, and he shares them with Sita. Even though she is hurt by his lack of trust, Sita agrees to walk through fire in order to prove her purity. She undergoes the trial by fire and she comes out unscathed, but Rama is still not convinced, so he bans her to the forest. Mehta concentrates only on this part of the long story of Rama in order to show that women are always placed in the position of Sita, of having to prove their devotion to men and of being doubted all the time. The title of the film refers partly to this situation, but also to Radha, who literally goes through Fire in order to reach Sita and to prove to herself that she is true to their relationship.

By associating the two movies–the one that Biji wants to watch and the one that Biji is made to watch–Mehta clearly states that both of them have devastating effects on women, since women are controlled and objectified in both. While Ramayana affirms and normalizes the status of women as being accountable to men, pornography normalizes the domination of women.

The choice that Sita and Radha have is to enter a lesbian relationship that is mutually fulfilling and that does not involve power struggles or notions of "duty." Radha has stayed married to a man who does not acknowledge her needs and desires. Because she is barren, Ashok has refused her all physical (and emotional) contact for 13 years. He has taken a vow of chastity and he is testing his desire by having "the object" of his desire (Radha) lie in bed near him until temptation subsides. Apart from being blamed for being barren, Radha is also seen as the root of temptation, the main cause of desire. Ashok does not consider her desires or needs, as he sets on his path to "become one with the universe:"


Perhaps it was my destiny assigned to seek the universal truth. Each day Swamiji helps me to conquer that truth.

Radha: How does it help me?
Ashok: By helping me, you are doing your duty as my wife.

Radha's needs are completely ignored, but she is supposed to find fulfillment in doing her duty as a wife and tending to Ashok's needs and desires. On a certain level, she is in the same situation as Biji: she is forced to submit to whatever her husband asks her, without being allowed to express her own desires. By the time Sita joins the family, Radha seems resigned to do her duty as a "good" Hindu wife and to repress any desires of her own.

Sita's arrival however, changes the emotional make-up of the house. Her unhappy marriage to Jatin quickly shatters any hopes she might have had of being happy, and her first encounter with heterosexual sex is traumatic. After Jatin consummates the marriage (and Sita is shown in a completely passive attitude, stunned and pained), she discovers the blood she lost with her virginity. Mehta gives the viewer a glimpse into the mind of a young woman who is not told anything about sex (Jatin is the one who tells her that she might be bleeding after the intercourse). She is married off to a man who does not love her and forces himself on her in order to consummate the marriage. The sight of blood on her legs and on the bed sheets terrify Sita, and she tries to clean the spots, symbolically cleaning from her mind the traumatic memory of her first heterosexual intercourse. She later finds out that Jatin has a mistress that he loves and has no intention of leaving her. It is the moment when she starts exploring her choices. Deeply disappointed by her marriage, she realizes that Radha's marriage is also unsatisfying, and she initiates a lesbian relationship with her sister-in-law, "I'm so sick of all this devotion. We can find choices!"

Mehta sees lesbianism as an active choice, as an instance of empowering women, of showing the importance of sharing a common experience that teaches them to make choices. It is what Adrienne Rich calls the "woman-identified experience" that bonds Sita and Radha in the first place (192). Their relationship is not only completely different from what they experience in their marriages, but it also represents their resistance to the oppressive marriage structures; it is "both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is also a direct or indirect attack on male right of access to women" (Rich 192). The significance of making an active choice to refuse the imposition of heterosexuality is expressed by the director in two parallel scenes in which both Sita and Radha refuse their husbands' desires: Radha does not want to lie in bed beside Ashok so he can "test" his desire, while Sita refuses Jatin's sexual advances. As lesbianism is considered by many Indians a corruptive influence from the West, and as there is no word in Hindi for "lesbian," the breaking of the taboo by Sita and Radha appears even more courageous in the specific confines of the Hindu society.

Filming lesbian love scenes has always been a problematic endeavor for women directors, since the main task seems to be to avoid the objectification and fetishization of women that take place in mainstream movies. Mehta tackled this task with craftsmanship and avoided those specific traps, with one single exception. The scenes that deal with touching, with exchanges of gazes between the two lovers, and with lesbian sex are carefully shot, usually from a distance, with a fixed camera. As Chris Straayer points out, sexual gaze in film is usually a "male prerogative;" it is unidirectional and it expresses unidirectional power, from the man to the woman (344). On the contrary, the looks exchanged by women display equality, since they "require exchange" and they express "two-directional sexual activity" (Straayer 344). In the picnic scene, the exchange of looks between Sita and Radha emphasize just this fact: that their relationship is based on equality. They are both sitting and facing each other, and this sets both of them on the same level; Mehta's subtle and undermining irony is not wasted on the viewer, since the two women are exchanging loving looks under their husbands' eyes. Moreover, Ashok's words are undermined as well; watching the two sisters-in-law he says, "I'm lucky to have such a loving family." There is no loving family; the family life is completely dysfunctional, since there are no fulfilling relationships in the two marriages. Fire offers a stark contrast between the reality of marriage and the image of the ideal marriage and loving family that the Hindi movies are known for.

The metafilmic discourse in Fire is therefore used to undermine the message that Hindi movies project–the glorification of heterosexuality, of family life, and of the duties of a wife; Mehta aligns this message with pornography, used to objectify women. Even though the Hindi films are proverbially free of any sex scenes, the two genres combine and serve the same purpose: controlling women. However, one of the lesbian sex scenes that is shown in Fire seems to defeat all the painstaking care that the director took to film the other ones. The camera is very close to the bed, and Radha is seen caressing Sita's breast. Sita is not even in the shot, so the viewer is free to fetishize her breast. However, the meaning of this scene is revealed when the viewers realize that they are watching the scene from a man's point of view. All the previous love scenes between Sita and Radha were carefully shot in order to avoid objectification and fetishization; the viewer also has to realize that–with two exceptions--no male character is watching them either, so the voyeuristic moments are reduced. This particular scene is very important, since Mehta seems to indicate that the only way in which a man can watch a lesbian sex scene–or understand lesbianism, for that matter--is by objectifying and fetishizing one or both of the protagonists. The viewer is to remember that there is no word in Hindi for "lesbians." Thus Luce Irigaray's words that lesbianism is recognized by men "only to the extent that is prostituted to man's fantasies" ring true for the analysis of this scene (196). The exclusion of the male from a fully satisfying sexual relationship between two women poses an immense threat to men, so much so that they feel compelled to coopt lesbianism in the heterosexual porn discourse, in order to reassure themselves that a woman still needs a penis to keep her satisfied sexually. This accounts for the violent reception that Fire got in India. Mehta is encoding this message in her film, and she uses this particular scene to show how men are trying to undermine female subjectivity by co-opting lesbianism into their discourse. As B. Ruby Rich states, "surely it is not merely an image which is one thing or the other, but equally (if not foremost) the imagination that employs the image in the service of its fantasy" (410).

The incorporation of female lesbian erotica into porn is another way in which women are controlled and contained. Ashok does the same when he witnesses the love scene between Sita and Radha. Mehta uses a subjective shot–which she did not do when she filmed the other love scenes–in order to show the viewer how Ashok sees the two women in a typically voyeuristic way. If the viewer did not understand Mehta's message in this scene, the following one that involves Ashok should be illuminating: shaken, Ashok sits on the steps of his store, and replays the scene in his mind, like a movie. It is clear that Mehta wants the viewer to realize that it was Ashok's imagination that transformed the love scene, in the same way in which men co-opt female erotica into porn. As a result, the man who managed to control his desire for 13 years gets an erection after seeing the love scene again in his mind.

Ashok is not the only man who objectifies the two women. Mundu does the same to both Radha and Sita, and Mehta makes it clear that he does it under the influence of the way women are portrayed in his favorite movies. After Radha and Sita make love for the first time, they meet in the kitchen in the morning, and Radha gives her lover some bangles. Sita puts some bangles on Radha's arm as well, and the act in itself is very sexual, since it is accompanied by an exchange of loving looks in the soft, glowing light of the morning. Mundu is watching the scene through the video store window, used by Mehta as the signifier of a movie screen. The instance of voyeurism is clear, since the viewer also knows by now what is Mundu's favorite movie genre; therefore, there is no surprise that Mundu is the only one in the house to guess that the two women are having a love affair, since he goes through the same process as Ashok–he incorporates lesbianism into male discourse, in order to make it less threatening. His words speak clearly about how he sees the two women: "Even Radha bhabhi looks like a heroine. Now there's two heroines in one kitchen." Looking at Radha and Sita, Mundu objectifies them in the same way in which Hindi movies (and porn) objectify women. The appellative "heroine" applied to both women and associated with the word "kitchen" allows Mehta to expose how women are relegated either to the kitchen or to being objects on the screen, both positions being solely used for the (eating or viewing) pleasure of men. Since Sita's and Radha's marital sex lives are nonexistent, the only functions that are available for them are being "pretty" and serving in the kitchen.

Interestingly enough, Mehta makes it clear in Fire that Sita and Radha are not needed for anything else. There is no communication between the married couples, and there is no fulfilling sex life for either of them, while the men find their own fulfillment somewhere else: Ashok in his relationship with Swamiji, and Jatin in his relationship with Julie. Sita and Radha are supposed to feed the men, take care of Biji, and work in the take-out kitchen. Sita is the one who notices that they would not be missed if they left the house, since Ashok has Swamiji, Jatin has Julie, and Biji has Mundu to care for her. Mehta exposes the sham of heterosexual marriage that enslaves women economically and sexually, and she juxtaposes it to the idealized image of romantic love that is projected by the Hindi movies. Metafilmic discourse works to encode the director's criticism of patriarchal control over women, while lesbianism is proposed as a choice that women can make in order to achieve agency and power. To marriage and its oppression, Mehta offers the alternative of a fulfilling and meaningful relationship between women that completely undermines traditional and constrictive structures. What probably scared Fire's most vehement opponents was not the presence of lesbianism in the film, but the affirmation and acknowledgment of actual choices that women can make outside the tradition-reinforcing structure of marriage.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. "Decking Out: Performing Identities." Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, GayTheories. Ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Coward, Rosalind. Female Desire. London: Paladin Books, 1984.

"Fire Explores Women's Dilemma in Modern World." The Hindu 20 December 1998: 1.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1977.

"Deepa Mehta on..." Zeitgeist Films

de Laurentis, Teresa. "Rethinking Women's Cinema: Aesthetics and Feminist Theory." Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1990. 288-309.

Marquand, Robert. "Hooray for Bollywood's Tales of Love." The Christian Science Monitor 20 October 1999:24/7.

Panesar, Randip. "Elemental Passions." India 2 February 1999: 1.

Popham, Peter. "Film Breaks Silence of India's Lesbians." The Independent (London) 20 December 1998: 13.

Raval, Sheela. "Controversy: Ire over Fire." India Today 21 December 1998: 78.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983.

Rich, B. Ruby. "Anti Porn: Soft Issue, Hard World." Issues. 405-18.

Sharma, Kalpana. "Fighting the Moral Police." The Hindu 20 December 1998: 1.

Straayer, Chris. "The Hypothetical Lesbian Heroine in Narrative Feature Film." Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Diane Carson, Linda Ditmar, Janice Welsh. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P., 1994. 343-58.

Srinivas, M. N. Village, Caste, Gender and Method: Essays in Indian Social Anthropology. Delhi: Oxford U.P., 1998.

Thadani, Giti. "The Politics of Identities and Languages: Lesbian desire in Ancient and Modern India." Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and Transgender Practices across Cultures. Ed. Evelyn Blackwood & Saskia E. Wieringa. New York: Columbia U.P.,1999.

"The trials and Tribulations of a typical Bollywood Star."

All translations from Hindi: Sultan Qureshi.

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