World cinema retro-review: Fire (India, 1997)

About five years ago (or more, I can’t remember), I went to this International Gay and Lesbian conference. Held  in Manila, Philippines, it gave me a crash course on the state of GLBT rights worldwide, and I met some of the of the most diverse group of largely gays and lesbians from all walks of life, from every country imaginable. Being a young, not yet that out lesbian then, it seemed like I’d died and gone to GLBT heaven. I hung out with the lesbians and we discussed everything from GLBT rights to sexuality to monogamy to gay marriage to movies  and of course, girls. ^^ As you will eventually know – or if you have lesbian friends, you will know, that we are the most opinionated of the lot, and we will offer our two cents worth of opinion on anything under the sun. I’d met some Indian lesbians there and almost everyone I’d met hated or loathed the movie “Fire”, an award-winning lesbian film from India that was directed by critically-acclaimed Indian director, Deepa Mehta. I wondered why. As it had come out in the 1990s, at a time when access to anything GLBT in the Philippines was the equivalent of living in the Dark Ages, I had not had a chance to view it. Until now.

And now – at times, I wish I hadn’t seen it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am familiar with Deepa Mehta’s work. I had seen her earlier work, “Earth”, which, though very tragic, was quite a compelling movie that dealt with the birth of modern-day India, and the socio-cultural, political and personal price that each person had to pay, especially during that time when India was being divided. I couldn’t tear myself away from the movie.

I thus had high expectations for this film, “Fire”, which is part of Deepa Mehta’s film trilogy that included “Earth” and “Water”.

Now that I have seen it, I just, well, don’t know what to make of it. Of course, kudos are in order to the director for what I presume to be a very realistic almost to the point of gritty portrayal of life as an Indian woman in modern India. I’ve met and talked to, enough Indian women to know that what Mehta had tackled in “Fire”, about arranged marriages, loveless marriages, the homophobia, the many sexist and mysogynist obligations Indian women are subjected to, are real. In fact, a couple of young, female Indian classmates I had had told me they’d heard about Deepa Mehta,but that they were forbidden from watching her films. Clearly, she had struck a chord with a Bollywood-loving Indian audience and that would have made this film more interesting to watch.

Except…it wasn’t so much as interesting as it was…painful to watch…even excruciating at times.

It is safe to say that I had a number of problems with this film. Problems that made it difficult for me to appreciate it, despite its groundbreaking and, by Indian standards, taboo topics.

First of all, it would have to do with the characters themselves. The story is that of Sita (Nandita Das) and Radha (Shabana Azmi), two sisters-in-law who are stuck in loveless marriages. The older Radha is married to a celibate Indian man, while the younger Sita is stuck in an arranged marriage with Radha’s husband’s brother, who is in love with a young Chinese woman.

Now let me explain why I didn’t like this film. In Korean parlance, there is a word, “a-ju-ma” (or a-zu-ma) which roughly translates to “aunt”, but contextually, refers to any older woman past 50. These “a-ju-mas” are wise, cosmopolitan, headstrong, feisty, tough little old ladies and as my Korean friends have explained, you don’t mess with them – unless you are ready to lose life and limb. You’d have to be a bit familiar with Korean culture and society to understand this word and the context, but a Western equivalent would be somebody like Bette Midler (sorry,coulnd’t think of anyone else) and the characters she’s been playing since “Beaches”, but a lot meaner. An even better example would be Kim Hae Suk, pictured below, who had played the consumate kim-hae-suk and ultimate  “a-ju-ma” in countless Korean films. Watch Korean film “Viva! Love” (Gyeongchk Urisarang) so you’ll get what I mean.

Anyway, why the lengthy discussion about “a-ju-mas“? Well, the thing is this is what has kept me from enjoying an otherwise nice film. The thing is Shabana Azmi’s Radha is so old, so “a-ju-ma“-like that it is hard to suspend disbelief and believe that she has actually fallen  in love with the younger Sita (Nandita Das).  This is not a case of ageism, as I do find older women hot (^^), but I just didn’t and couldn’t believe that a straight  “a-ju-ma” who’s been in a heterosexual marriage all these years would suddenly have strong sexual and romantic feelings for another woman. Besides, I didn’t find anything in the younger woman that would necessitate Radha’s leaving her husband. There is nothing special or fascinating about her. The other thing is I can’t help but think that the film seems to imply that what pushes women into lesbianism is bad heterosexual relationships and marriages, like a very politically incorrect alternative to the heterosexual lifestyle (heck, if you can’t hack it as a straight woman, go gay! is what it feels like it’s saying). While there are many reasons why gays are gays (that is another debate that will never end soon), choosing this one reason amongst other, more convincing reasons (we were born gay, for example), doesn’t really advance the cause or help people understand gays. Although Mehta gets points for trying. What it does seem to have is  situational homosexuality,  which defines as sexual behavior “that is different from what is usual for that person (or from what that person normally exhibits) due to a social environment that permits, encourages, or compels those acts”.  Meaning a person is gay, but only because the situation, in this case, loveless marriages, forced them into it .Put in another way, they turned gay because there were no decent people of the opposite sex in sight.

Anyway, one can now understand why straight and gay viewers alike had some ambivalence about this film. Even now, I still don’t know what to make of it really. One hopes though that Indian lesbians and Indian women, in general, are better off than what is depicted in this film.

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