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Who is Beneath the Coloured Veil? – Let’s Look at the Indian Women Depicted in Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy | Part 3 | Fire

In Part One of this series, we looked at how Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy introduces the plight of Indian women through her films. Through this Trilogy, Mehta has given women a voice by illustrating how they have revolted against the injustices they face. Mehta undoubtedly allows for the vibrancy with something darker and more sinister to reveal the reality faced by Indian women. In Part Two, we got to understand who Deepa Mehta is through a brief history and explored the first film of the Trilogy, Earth.


In this Part, we will look at the second film of the Trilogy, Fire.




Mehta explicitly states that Fire is a film about choices that we, as human beings, make, which may lead directly to alienation. Further, she says that by including the theme of sexuality in the film, she did not set out to create a movie on lesbianism but rather a film that portrayed an extreme choice instead. At first glance, however, it is difficult to claim that the film is not specifically ‘about lesbians’, as the two main characters display this sexual identity or preference. The film's title, Fire, indicates that it is indeed about desire and love; the raging fire coursing through the body keeps it alive by being radiant, warm, and beautiful. Mehta states that the film's rejection of the ‘traditional Indian’ point of view poses several problems, as it is clear that Indian identity is a complex notion. As there is no word in the Hindi language which describes lesbians or lesbianism, Mehta’s film illustrates that, while this may be the case, perhaps this is the time that identity is being constructed. The film, thus, creates a platform for dialogue among men and women regarding an identity that goes against the conventional norms of sexual identity and preferences. 


Mehta herself has indicated that she did not make the film for those audiences who are unable to understand it and only see in it the sexual desires of two women; instead, the film is for those in India who will understand Fire as a film that portrays the inherent desire to seek happiness and contentment where it can be found. She maintains that, while she has shown an extreme choice in the film, the result is simply that you cannot have everything in life. However, what can be taken away from this film, in Mehta’s words, is that “happiness does not fall into your lap; in fact, happiness is too ephemeral a word,” nevertheless, on the topic of choice, she states that everyone has to choose in life, and ultimately risks have to be taken. 


Fire revolves around a joint Indian family in New Delhi who live above the store they run together. In this context, a common family refers to an undivided household arrangement. The head of the household in Fire is Ashok, a pious man who has undertaken a vow of celibacy after he realizes that his wife, Radha, cannot bear children. He religiously follows his spiritual teacher, Swamiji, and dedicates most of his time and devotion to learning to attain enlightenment. Swamiji preaches that “Desire is the love of power; aspiration light is the power of love.” Ashok, therefore, firmly believes that “Desire is the root of all evil.” However, later in the film, when Radha questions him about how his vow helps her, he replies, “By helping me, you’re doing your duty as my wife.” Ashok is the quintessential patriarch who, in his righteousness, sees himself as better than everyone else and assumes that his struggle to “seek union with the universal truth” is for the betterment of all “mankind.”


Radha, on the other hand, has long since accepted her fate in the loveless marriage in which she finds herself. She understands that her future is to embody the role of the traditional Indian housewife who places her duty on the whims of her husband and family above everything else. In the film, we see that her days consist of caring for Ashok’s mother, “Biji,” who has suffered a stroke and cannot speak, taking care of the household, and helping run the family business. Radha learns to suppress any yearning for more fulfillment, just as she has learned to repress her innocent childhood desire to see and feel the ocean someday. 


Jatin is Ashok’s younger brother. He is caught between his love for his Chinese mistress, Julie, and what his family expects of him. Julie is not interested in marrying him, as this would result in her living in a traditional joint household, which appears to go against everything she represents, which is carefree and wild. Therefore, Jatin agrees to an arranged marriage to placate Ashok and Biji. However, he struggles with the tension between his own life and independence and bowing to the expectations that family traditions demand from him. He often resolves this conflict by fulfilling the family expectations for the sake of tradition while pursuing his own life in his own time. For example, he has no intention of relinquishing his mistress even after his arranged marriage to Sita. 


Sita is the true romantic character in the film. She cannot understand her husband’s dismissiveness towards her at the beginning of their relationship. As she uncovers about his mistress, she begins to question her role within the confines of this family. However, Radha is the person in the household who treats her with genuine care and love, and gradually the audience sees Sita fall in love with her sister-in-law. In the film, Sita represents the modern Indian woman who has many old traditions and cultural norms ingrained into her but does not understand why they should bind her. As she begins to reflect on her position, she claims, “Isn’t it amazing? Customs and rituals so bind us. Somebody has to press my button … this button marks tradition, and I start responding like a trained monkey?” Nevertheless, Sita envisions a different way of life and being and wants to question everything, including the taboo against loving another woman. 


Biji, on the other hand, represents the old order and is the keeper of tradition. As she has lost her speech, she has a bell that she uses as a means to summon people, as well as to express her displeasure at what is happening around her. Finally, there is the family servant, Mundu. He resents his position of subservience within the household, and thus, he retaliates by watching adult films instead of the religious movies that he is supposed to be showing Biji. His act of defiance is also coupled with his masturbating to adult films whenever he is left alone with Biji. He is aware that Biji can never tell the other members of her family, and therefore, takes pleasure where he can, disregarding any ideas about respect for elders. These ideas are a cornerstone of Indian culture. His behavior is sinful in the eyes of most Indians, yet Mundu does not care about this as long as he can get away with his actions. 


In a review of the film, James Berardinelli says that “Fire is less of a story regarding lesbians' love than it is a statement of female emancipation. This is a tale of two vital, beautiful women breaking their cultural obstacles and being reborn through the passion they express for each other. Their relationship is forbidden, but it is by their feelings that they find the strength to defy their husbands and turn their backs on tradition”. Deepa Mehta concurs, stating that “it is really about the characters needing to be alive.” 


The film begins with Sita being traditionally accepted into the house, having been newly married to Jatin. As she learns the role that she is required to play in the family, she tries to be the “good Indian wife” by waiting for Jatin to return to the family home, for she partakes in food, fasting for his blessed long life, and so forth. However, the audience also sees that, as Sita tries to be the dutiful wife, she also has a fiery spirit that cannot be contained. She soon realizes that Jatin is never going to be the husband that she had thought she was marrying. Over time, Sita begins to develop strong feelings for her sister-in-law. When the two women go grocery shopping together, they bond over saying that their mothers passed down to them:


           Radha: My mother used to say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

                       It’s an excellent English saying.


           Sita: My mother says that a woman without a husband is like boiled rice, bland, 

                     unappetizing, useless. This must be an Indian saying. 


           Radha: I like plain, boiled rice.


This is the first indication that Radha is beginning to define herself outside of her relationship   

with Ashok. As Sita gradually begins to fall in love with Radha, she takes the initiative to move their relationship from a platonic relationship to a sexual one by kissing Radha. On the night of Karva Chauth, the day of the year on which Hindu wives are required to fast and pray for the long lives of their husbands, Ashok and Jatin are conspicuous by their absence. However, this is an essential moment in the film. Radha takes her first concrete step away from tradition when she gives Sita water before the latter has received Jatin’s blessings: tradition decrees that Sita should restrain from food and water and wait until he returns. That night, Sita goes to Radha’s room, and the two consummate their relationship for the first time. Later, when Sita pensively asks Radha whether they have done something wrong, Radha quietly answers, “No.” With this reply, Radha reveals that she is no longer confining herself to traditional ideals. Mehta comments that:


“The women’s relationship represents modern India itself. Radha is tradition-bound and just waiting to blossom but can’t because of the absurdity of tradition, and Sita is modern India, desiring independence over tradition. Yet, it’s not as if she can speak her mind. She’s simply a catalyst, so when she walks into the house, she makes things happen just by her presence.” 


As the film unfolds, the audience sees Radha and Sita continue to captivate each other while Ashok and Jatin remain blissfully unaware of any developing feelings between the two women. Indeed, the two women take advantage of the various activities women in Indian society are expected to engage in, to spend more time with each other. They dance together, with Sita in drag, in Jatin’s clothing, play childhood games, and go to the holy shrine of Nizamuddin to pray together. However, at the shrine, the viewer realizes that their relationship can no longer be contained within the prescribed parameters of the family. 


One night Radha tells Sita about her inability to bear children. When Sita asks her if that has anything to do with love, she reveals the story of her marriage:


           (Radha:) According to Ashok, everything. “Desire distracts from the path to God. 

                          Desire is the root cause of all evil.” Swamiji says that the only reason to 

                          have a sexual relationship is to have sons that will carry on the family

And so, one night many years ago, Ashok found a way of turning

                          our misfortune into an opportunity. He took a vow of celibacy. Whenever

                          he felt any desire for me, he wanted me to lie next to him. He said, “I 

                          won’t even touch you. I promise. I only want to bet I am 

                          beyond temptation and, therefore, closer to God. And when I said yes, his

                          face glowed with such hope that I … that I chose not to see the confusion                                                                                                                                               

                          beneath the surface. He looked like a child. And in that instant, just for 

                          a moment, I knew what it felt like to be a mother.


This passage portrays the difficulty found in the lives of Indian women as they are subjected to the whims of tradition. Through Radha’s words, the viewer sees the pain emanating from the restrictions imposed on these women. As a woman, Radha is taught to suppress her desire, knowing that harboring such a crush is the “root of all evil.” As the passage dictates, Swamiji speaks of the role of sexual relationships only as a tool to produce heirs. However, Radha’s inability to bear children leaves her empty with a longing for a suppressed life. Notably, when she says, “He looked like a child. And in that instant, just for a moment, I knew what it felt like to be a mother,” the viewer senses her pain and the emptiness that has encompassed her life. 


One can also see that, as much as tradition has dictated to her that she should be obedient and dutiful and a vessel for children, there is an emptiness in her, yet it is unknown whether this is due to a lack of affection or the inability to have children or both. Arguably, this emptiness appears just as stated; even though Radha cannot have children, she should be given some form of affection to compensate for something that is not her fault. Instead, she has to live a life of looking after a family who shows neither appreciation nor admiration for her. Through this, she becomes empty and numb to the life passing her by, which is why it appears that her love for Sita catches her off guard at first. The yearning for life outside of the confines of marriage fuels Radha’s second attempt at living. 


However, before the women even have a chance to put their plan into action, the film's events escalate, and they begin to lose any control they once had. Mundu, who has been watching Radha and Sita together, through the keyhole in the door, goes to the ashram to bring Ashok home. Ashok then asks him to leave the house for his actions of spying on Radha and possibly the fact that this shatters the harmonious mirage that Ashok thought his household to be. He goes to the room to see if there is any truth to Mundu’s claims. Here, he walks in on Radha and Sita engaging in their first act of sexual intercourse. There is a long, heavy silence as none of them speak, and he then leaves. As the women get dressed, Sita says they are going right away and adds that she is glad that Ashok has found out about them. The following conversation between Radha and Sita sets up the final moments of the film:


           Radha: It doesn’t matter now. I only wish it hadn’t happened by 



           Sita: What would you have said? “Goodbye Ashok, I’m leaving you for Sita. I love

                     her, but not like a sister-in-law.” Now listen, Radha. No word in 

                     our language can describe what we are, how we feel for each other.


           Radha: Perhaps you’re right. Seeing is less complicated. 


Radha asks Sita to leave right away, saying she will join her as soon as possible. However, Sita does not want to leave without Radha, reminding her that she does not owe Ashok anything. Radha, however, is resolute: “I need to tell him that my leaving has everything to do with me.” She then pleads with Sita to go without her, saying that she will follow: “Knowing that you’re out there, waiting for me … it’ll help me to leave finally. Please,” and Sita packs her things and leaves. Biji calls for Radha with her bell and spits in her face to show Radha her contempt for what Radha has done.


Ashok, having found that he has an erection thinking of the two women, indicates to Radha that he needs her to lie with him. She refuses this. Ashok slaps her, calls her a prostitute, and states that he cannot believe the woman she has become. In the ensuing physical struggle, her saree catches fire on the stove behind her. Ashok watches her battle the flames, yet he refuses to help her. Instead, he picks up Biji and carries her downstairs, leaving Radha to save herself or die in the attempt. 


As the viewer watches, flames consume Radha, and the viewer is reminded of a myth enacted earlier in the film – of the Goddess Sita, who had to endure a trial by fire to prove her purity. Radha, too, proves her purity as she emerges from the flames to meet Sita. 


Mythology in Fire


The myth of Sita is essential in reading into the film as Radha’s fire scene is a modern re-enactment of the original story. According to an ancient Hindu text, the Ramayana, Sita, the heroine, is the ideal wife and woman. Gavin Flood describes her as “demure, modest, beautiful, and dedicated to her Lord Rama.” However, from an ancient text, these terms are precisely the types of words that the Indian tradition uses to describe Sita, or ‘Mother Sita’ as she is often called. However, instead of these words describing Sita itself, they are used to describe the behavior and feelings expected of her as a wife serving her husband. Flood further states that a good wife is a virtuous wife, and the words ‘demure,’ ‘modest,’ and ‘dedicated’ describe her virtues in the same terms that Hindu books outline the morality and ethics of wifely behavior. Therefore, Sita is a powerful icon, and her name is evoked to describe women who “exemplify that ideal or to encourage women to adopt Sita-like qualities.” As a result, there is no need to tell her qualities and virtues alongside the invocation of her name, as these qualities and integrity have been taught to Hindu individuals from an early age to be synonymous with the Goddess's name. 


The myth of Sita unravels simply by telling the tale of a Goddess who was set to marry Prince Rama after he had won a competition to win her hand in marriage. This competition evoked great strength and courage on Lord Rama’s behalf. Following the wishes of King Dasharatha, Prince Rama, Sita, and his brother, Prince Lakshmana, were to be exiled to a forest for fourteen years due to a boon that King Dasharatha had to fulfill for one of his three Queens. As a result, the three individuals set off into the forest, where they lived a simple life. One day, however, a demon King, Ravana, abducted Sita as her beauty was legendary. Days later, she was rescued by Rama. However, he wanted her to take the test of utmost purity, as he was aware that the reason that she was captured was due to lust. This test entailed Sita throwing herself into a fire, invoking the God of Fire, Agni, to cleanse her of her misfortune and to let her perish in the flames if she had been impure or unfaithful. As Sita’s name is synonymous with all the virtues that Hindu tradition associates with a good, dutiful wife, Sita remained true to her nature and walked out of the fire unscathed. 


In the film, however, Radha echoes this purity as she, too, emerges from the flames to meet Sita. In a movie that stirred controversy, Mehta has included this aspect of traditional Hindu mythology to allow viewers to think outside religious confines. Just as Sita proves her purity, so does Radha, and as a result, she cannot be punished for simply ‘living’ again.


Before her desire for life is reawakened by Sita, she appears pretty content with being the loving wife to Ashok, who is present for his every need and ensures that she behaves as the docile, dutiful wife. However, this archetype is threatened when Sita enters her life, and she is taught to look out for the confines that religion has placed her in. As a result, she suffers the humiliation of being neglected as a wife due to being infertile; she is taught to suppress her desires as they are the root of all evil, and above all, she cannot question this. Nevertheless, as Sita enters the household, Radha is taught to take control of her life, even though religion and tradition have forbidden such activities. Radha, too, faces humiliation as Ashok leaves her to fight the flames to atone for her ‘sins.’


In Fire, women are portrayed as puppets, restricted to the confines of the box labeled ‘tradition.’ They have been stripped of their identities as they are molded into what Hindu society deems as the correct behavior for a woman. Mehta, however, takes a hammer to this box, shattering the restrictions of tradition, allowing women to reclaim their identity. As a filmmaker, she will enable her film to become a platform for women to break the barriers of repressive tradition and find their means to live a life worth living, rather than falling prey to it and living both empty and numb, as Radha initially portrays. 


Despite the title, this film leaves the audience feeling cold. Shivers of horror run down spines, and the reality of a brutal existence dawns on all. This film is difficult to watch, especially with the link to Hindu Mythology, something that most Hindu children are taught when they are young and impressionable. This link shatters the innocence of a life shadow from the atrocities that women face on a daily basis. 

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