There's Two Heroines in One Kitchen:
Lesbianism and Me(h)tafilmic Discourse in
Deepa Mehta's Fire
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, soto use Teresa de Laurentis's
expressionFire 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.
Indian Culture" as We Know It: Fire and Its Reception
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 Bollywoodthe
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.
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 elsewhereeither
in the arms of another woman, like Jatin, or in search of God,
like Ashokwhile 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.
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
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:
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)
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
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
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).
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.
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,
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!"
Can Find Choices:" Fire, Me(h)tafilmic Discourse,
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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 everybodyespecially womenhas
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 backgroundagain, a movie tunesays, "This
is the place where you give love and take love." It is
ironic and disturbing that the place to "give and take
love" isfor mena 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.
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.
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.
associating the two moviesthe one that Biji wants to watch
and the one that Biji is made to watchMehta 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.
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:"
it was my destiny assigned to seek the universal truth.
Each day Swamiji helps me to conquer that truth.
does it help me?
By helping me, you are doing your duty as my wife.
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
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!"
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.
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.
metafilmic discourse in Fire is therefore used to undermine
the message that Hindi movies projectthe 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 thatwith 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 sceneor 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).
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 shotwhich she did not do when
she filmed the other love scenesin 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.
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 Ashokhe 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.
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.
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