Deepa Mehta's "Fire," which opened yesterday at the Orpheum in Fells Point, burns with quiet intensity, setting aflame most American filmgoers' expectations and conventional wisdom about India and its cinema.
This rich-looking and deeply sensuous film rescues Indian women from the conventional constraints they suffer in that country and in its movies, where they are perceived either as revered (and sexless) mothers or sexual (and chaste) temptresses. In this portrait of a young woman breaking free of tradition and expectations, it's possible to see not only her personal journey toward self-definition but the same journey writ large for India itself.
Nandita Das plays Sita, the film's main character, who has just moved to New Delhi with her husband, Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi). Their arranged marriage involves a number of compromises: Jatin refuses to give up his Chinese lover, and Sita must accommodate his family -- his elderly mother, brother and sister-in-law, Ashok and Radha (Kulbushan Kharbanda and Shabana Azmi) and the family's "adopted" son, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), who helps the family in their shop. All live together in a jumble of affection, tensions and shifting alliances.
As Sita adjusts to her new life, she finds herself drawn to Radha, a ravishing older woman trying to cope with her husband's religious asceticism and celibate lifestyle. As the two women get to know each other, they discover that underneath their common bond an ember of romantic desire burns.
"There is no word in our language to describe what we are, what we mean to each other," Sita tells Radha at one point. This is the most explicit passage of "Fire," the appeal of which chiefly derives from its delicacy in portraying the women's sexual and romantic relationship. The words "lesbian" or "homosexual" are never uttered, in a refreshing instance of restraint; rather than politicize, polemicize or rationalize, Mehta prefers simply to present Sita and Radha's love as a given. (Azmi, who is a huge star in India, delivers a wonderfully sympathetic and many-shaded performance as a dedicated wife slowly being drawn into a new life.)
"Fire" begins at the Taj Mahal, the edifice most associated with India's romantic -- and somewhat pernicious -- myths. Mehta winks as she presents it, as if forcing the audience to confront their most deep-seated stereotypes about her native country, even while she celebrates its distinctive culture. This is the India we haven't seen before, one that has left the British Raj and lurid "Bollywood" spectacles behind, or at least integrated them with the trappings of Western pop culture.
"Fire" is suffused with striking, memorable images: When Sita and Radha watch a wedding procession together in silence, all it takes is a look to communicate the deep pain of their dual experience as thoroughly modern women and traditional Indian wives.
Much of "Fire" seems to have been filmed using bright back-light, resulting in distractingly blurry, powdery shadow-images. But as a character says early in the film, "What you can't see you can see -- you just have to see without looking." Mehta has made a compelling film about India at a crossroads, and she has made its beauty and contradictions crystal clear.
Starring Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Kubushan Kharbanda, Jaaved Jaaferi
Directed by Deepa Mehta
Released by Zeitgeist Films
Running time 104 minutes
Sun score ***