One of the most eagerly awaited Canadian pics of the fall season, Deepa Mehta’s “Fire,” which opened the Perspective Canada sidebar at the Toronto fest, is a reasonably engaging drama that tackles the conflict between traditional and modern values in contemporary India. But the third feature from this Indian-born writer-director whose other pics are “Sam and Me” and “Camilla” is an underwhelming effort that adds little new to the debate over arranged marriages and fails to ignite much interest in the problems faced by two frustrated New Delhi wives.
“Fire” will be a tough sell in North America and will likely interest only those with a keen interest in Indian culture. Pic is notable for the fact that it was entirely privately financed, with no Canuck government support.
First scene, oneof the few exteriors in the film, is set in front of the Taj Mahal, where a young couple, Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi) and Sita (Nandita Das), try, rather unsuccessfully, to have a friendly conversation. It turns out that they were pressured into an arranged marriage by Jatin’s family, particularly by his brother Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda). Jatin, who operates the family video store under their apartment, is unwilling to cut off his affair with a sexy Chinese hairdresser, and he makes no effort to hide the affair from his new bride.
Ashok’s own marriage is just as troubled. His wife, Radha (Shabana Azmi), is unable to conceive children, and her infertility has pushed her husband to her husband to become the fanatical follower of a local spiritual leader who preaches complete abstinence from anything to do with sex.
The unhappy New Delhi household is rounded out by Jatin and Ashok’s ill-tempered, semi-catatonic mother, Biji (Kushal Rekhi), who drives everyone crazy by frantically ringing her bell for attention at all hours of the day and keeping an eye on all goings-on in the house.
Then there’s the servant, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), who helps the family at their restaurant and video store, but seems to spend every available free moment masturbating in front of X-rated videos he pilfers from the family store.
Lacking affection and warmth from their husbands, Sita and Radha become close friends. The younger Sita begins slowly to change the conservative, almost servile views held by Radha. The friendship soon blossoms into a sexual affair, and the discovery of their union tears apart the extended family.
One of the core problems in “Fire” is that Mehta takes a didactic approach to her presentation of the constraints faced by women under the strict social codes of Indian society. Her feminist message about the damage caused by these male rules will appear self-evident to North American auds. The relationship between Sita and Radha is at the center of the story, but Mehta doesn’t do enough to portray the dynamic of the affair and explore the complexity of their love story.
Azmi, one of India’s best-known thesps, and Das, who is not known to Western viewers, do an admirable job of conveying these women’s frustration and sense of isolation, and there is real tenderness in the scenes shared by the two thesps. The male actors fare less well, mostly because the material leaves them little room for dramatic development.
Giles Nuttgens’ camerawork consists mostly of dark, claustrophobic interiors, giving little sense of the broader New Delhi cityscape, while A.R. Rahman’s score accents pic’s sad and moody qualities with a series of chant-like numbers.