In India’s highly patriarchal culture the eldest son enjoys a privileged position. Ashok, one of the central characters in Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film Fire, fully enjoys the fruits of this exalted lot. He shares his household with his aged, widowed mother Biji, his wife Radha, his much younger brother Jatin and Mundu, the family servant.
Together with Radha and Mundu, Ashok runs a take-out Punjabi food business. His helpers are indispensable but Ashok is the undisputed king of the castle. He is the one who doles out the financial largesse derived from the business, which is in point of fact much less than might reasonably be expected. Ashok tithes a considerable amount to his guru, Swamiji, whose teachings he has held as sacrosanct for years.
Ashok, we learn, has opted for celibacy in married life ever since making the discovery that his wife is unable to conceive children. He has thus consigned Radha to a (physically) loveless union. At the same time he has insisted they lie by one another’s sides in the conjugal bed. In this way he can test his resolve to overcome temptation and expunge desire – ‘the root of all evil’ – from his makeup.
But this aesthete hellbent on accessing a higher truth is not in the most ideal of environments for such an endeavour. His much younger brother Jatin exhibits the hallmarks of a layabout. His video store has a clandestine stock of porn, freely dealt out to eager customers, young boys among them. Mundu, in his spare time, masturbates to some of the racier fare in full view of the scandalised but incapacitated (she cannot speak, walk or feed herself) Biji. Jatin’s lover is Julie, a hedonistic, starry-eyed Chinese-Indian who has rejected Jatin’s hand in marriage, not wishing to become a typical, tradition bound Indian wife, or, as Jatin bluntly puts it, ‘a baby making machine’.
Jatin is on her side but has no such qualms about putting the beautiful young Sita in exactly the same position when he is cajoled into marrying her. But Sita is as interested in that prospect as Julie, who Jatin continues to call on after the wedding. On first taking up residence in the house of her extended family Sita puts on music and dances around her room in a crop top and comically overlarge pants. If Radha is alarmed by her new sister-in-law’s rebelliousness, she downplays the fact.
The pair are kindred spirits and their souls and bodies eventually merge, resulting in an awakening of potential in Radha long repressed. Ashok and Jatin, caught up as they are in their own worlds, seem largely unaware of the transformation. Mundu, however, is more observant. When Radha one day catches him masturbating in front of Biji and orders him to leave, he makes it clear he is well aware of the ’hanky panky’ going on between her and Sita.
The sexual tension between the two women is already palpable by this stage of the film. Ms Mehta depicts it in tender, understated scenes. It gravitates to a new dimension with Mundu’s implied threat that he will inform on the two lovers to Ashok, though what precisely he stands to gain if he does reveal their ‘secret’ is never entirely clear. A brief scene in which he studies a picture of the family would suggest he has a yen for the long- suffering Radha, as subservient in her way as he is in his role.
Fire is a feast for the eye and the disparate cast are uniformly good. The director’s concern lies less with Ashok’s apparent failure to completely eradicate fleshly desire than it does Radha’s belated but decisive recognition that, as she tells her disbelieving spouse, ‘desire is beautiful’ and that in the years she lived without it she believed herself to be half-dead. Flashbacks to her girlhood imply that seeing clearly was something she struggled with then too.
Radha is an individual with astute self-knowledge. Having unsuccessfully prevailed on Ashok to sack Mundu, she later likens herself to the hapless servant. When he masturbated he was concerned with nothing but his own fragmentary pleasure. Was the woman she had now evolved into, as a result of her and Sita’s love, not just as selfish and beholden to her own pleasure? Ashok has work to do. He has misjudged his wife and used her for his own ends. This, not his high aspiration, is his gravest fault. Yet when the dust settles all in the fractured household may be better off and share as one Radha’s clearer vision.