June 30, 2021
The opening montage of Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) takes place in a mustard field, a landscape that Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) used to epitomize romance just a year earlier. But in Fire, the mustard fields do not represent love, not in the no-holds-barred way of Shah Rukh Khan’s Rahul, but they do signify escape. A young mother is narrating a story to her daughter Radha, about mountain-dwelling people whose burning desire is to see the sea. “What you can’t see, you have to see without looking,” the mother says. A young Radha does not understand the story yet, but does grow into a woman who knows a thing or two about unquenched desire.
Far from the expansive mustard fields are the oppressive walls of the North Delhi apartment where an adult Radha (Shabana Azmi) is married to Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), the owner of a video and snacks store. When her brother-in-law Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) marries Sita (Nandita Das), Radha welcomes the new bride into a household that strictly regulates gender roles. Ashok and Jatin run the business and do as they please, whereas Radha and Sita must not only work at the family store, but also look after their hoary mother-in-law, Biji, and run their homes — all while their partners neglect them. Radha is considered barren, so Ashok, under the influence of a swami, takes a vow of celibacy. Jatin is having an affair with another woman and only married Sita to satisfy his elder brother’s wish for an heir.
Fire — about the romance that blossoms between two sisters-in-law in a rigid Indian household — turns 25 this year. It was one of the earliest films in India to explore same-sex female relationships, and was loosely inspired by Ismat Chugtai’s controversial pre-Partition Urdu short story, “Lihaaf” (“The Quilt”) — which alluded to a relationship between a married woman and her female house help. Upon its release, Fire bore the heaviest brunt of homophobic outrage; it also received some criticism from LGBTQ activists. Yet, Fire emerged as a pathbreaking film for queer cinema in India.