118 years of Trust


Saturday, December 19, 1998

This above all
regional vignettes



Shabana and Nandita in "Fire"All smoke, no fire

Deepa Mehta has, no doubt, picked up a challenging idea but has she been able to rise up to it, effectively? Hasn’t she botched up a perfectly fine, a sensitive theme through her inept, shoddy treatment of the cinematic medium? How far has she been able to raise the film above the level of mere pornography? These are some of the questions Fire leaves us with, says Rana Nayar

FIRE is threatening to turn into a nation-wide conflagration. It is difficult to say who started it. Ismat Chugtai who singed the hearts and minds with her story Lihaaf written some fifty years ago. Or Deepa Mehta who pulled the theme out of oblivion to adapt it for the screen, setting it aflame in the process. Or a bunch of Shiv Sainiks who have a knack of seeing fire even when there is no visible smoke. Or a clutch of liberals who are forever ready to jump into the flames, spewing fiery words. Or the government which quietly put the whole issue on the back-burner after referring the film to the Censor Board all over again.

No, it really doesn’t matter who started it. What matters it that we all are in the midst of raging flames. So much so that the heat is beginning to melt the glass in Parliament as well. But, unfortunately, no fire-fighters are in sight, no one willing to douse the flames. Perhaps the risk is too great. For anyone choosing to be a trouble-shooter might end up burning the edges of his own coat-tails.

In a manner of speaking, there is nothing new about this burning-a-hole controversy about Fire. It is, once again, running along the same old pattern, the predictable lines. On one side are lined up the conservatives with their back-to-the-roots ideology, their much too familiar rhetoric about Indian culture, tradition and thought. These self-anointed purveyors of Indian morality are literally baying for Deepa Mehta’s blood for crossing the proverbial lakshman rekha. On the other are ranged the liberals, swearing in the name of tolerance, dissent, artistic freedom and what have you. Well ensconced in their comfortable chairs, they are busy spouting statements or writing articles to save India from being pulled back into the medieval ages.

Be it Salman Rushdie’s book or Husain Saraswati or Deepa Mehta’s Fire, each time a controversy is raked up and the battle lines are drawn. One almost gets a feeling as if the entire population of this country now stands polarised into two groups; the barbarians and the civilised. Each debate meets the same fate. Each time, it’s the same versus situation. Morality v/s Immorality. Tradition v/s Modernity. Indian culture v/s Western culture. Those who choose to speak in this manner, speak from a pre-determined, dogmatic position. They couldn’t care less if the book, the painting or the film got marginalised or glossed over in the process.

Often, when the politics of morality takes over, art is the most apparent casualty. It simply falls by the wayside and easily becomes a non-issue while the debate rages, turning murkier with each new twist. In such a no-win situation, all kinds of questions are thrown about, except the ones that ought to be raised; too much is said about one’s own beliefs or prejudices but too little about the intrinsic worth of art; too many moral postures are struck but too little attention is paid to the question of aesthetics. Without putting too fine a point on this, one could say that some such thing has happened with Deepa Mehta’s Fire, too.

More than lesbianism or female sexuality, Fire is essentially a cinematic expression of human desire in all its manifestations. And human desire, being primeval and value-free, does not fall within the range of morality. Each character in the film moves within the space created by his/her desire and seeks fulfilment, not always successfully, though. There’s Biji, paralysed and bed-ridden, a passive image of the desire to live, falling upon itself in self-disgust. Her craving for life shows itself in the way in which she hungrily savours food, each time it is offered to her. Driven by a desire for moksha, her elder son tries rather unsuccessfully to sublimate his passion. Her younger son is in hot pursuit of the forbidden desire, outside the bounds of marriage, seeking fulfilment through a liaison with an Indian Chinese girl. Radha is the distilled expression of desire which leaps out of itself and rushes headlong, regardless of how or through whom it finds fulfilment. It could be the elder sister-in-law or another man but it really doesn’t matter for it is desire in search of itself. Neeta is desire in its dormant, frozen form, buried under the weight of tradition, custom and humdrum existence, awaiting a sensual touch to revive itself, to open up or break free so that it could start flowing all over again. Through her, the desire finds its life-affirming purpose, a way of connecting with the other in a meaningful space.

If one were to judge a film on the basis of its content alone, perhaps Fire would emerge a sure winner. But a film is simply not an idea, a theme or a statement; it’s also a language, a style, and a technique. And ultimately, it’s not the choice of a theme but it’s treatment or portrayal that makes all the difference. What is it that makes a third-rate pornographic film different from a work of art? In a manner of speaking, both could be said to deal with desire and its manifestations but one scores over the other only in terms of its presentation, its deft or daft handling. A pornographic film often loud, leaves nothing to imagination, satiates the viewer with a heap of lurid visuals and ultimately becomes a voyeur’s delight. However, the same material in more qualified hands might come in for an effective use of the cinematic language, blurring crude visuals into sensitive images, invoking silences to make memorable statements.

Fire is a metafilm that tells us exactly how it would like to be seen or viewed. In other words, it makes a conscious effort to fix the position of the spectator, and this it does by positioning a voyeur within the narrative of the film. However, there is no single voyeur in Fire as in each frame we have a different character slipping into the role of the voyeur. Mundu is the one who becomes the arch-voyeur as he not only watches everything that happens in this Punjabi household but also discovers its countless, forbidden pleasures through the key-hole. Mundu is a regular Peeping-Tom whose roving eye becomes the camera, peering into the dark secrets of two desire-driven women, splashing them on the screen, much to the viewers’ delight. Even poor Biji has also not been spared. While Mundu yields to the passion of the moment, indulging in an open act of self-abuse, Biji sits and watches haplessly, a reluctant unwilling voyeur. The camera has been handled in such a way that the viewer/spectator is not hardly given a choice to see the film in any other manner except of a voyeur. A movie that is being hailed as an eloquent statement on freedom and choice refuses to grant this very freedom or choice to its viewer(s). Isn’t that ironic?

But for the poor visual quality of the film, unnecessarily muted or understated (as most of it is in dark undertones), everything else about it is boisterously loud, even raucous. Now whether it is the mythological significance of Agnipariksha, or the obvious parallels with Radha and Seeta (later changed to Neeta); the love scenes involving one of the husbands and his Chinese girl friend or a servant disabusing himself, everything must be shown, not suggested. It is almost as if Deepa Mehta doesn’t believe in the art of understatement. Overstretched, her visuals appear crude and uncut; moments of silence are almost absent, often turning a seemingly innocuous visual into a lurid one. When the camera pans across an image or lingers over it, it does so longingly and without apologies.

It’s in her characterisation that Deepa Mehta flounders, rather helplessly. For instance, when she wants to portray Radha as a young, carefree, liberated woman, all she can think of is a scene, a la Hindi formula film where the stock image of a liberated woman is one of a jean-clad, cigarette-smoking hussy. One wonders why she could not come up with some novel, fresh way of presenting this side to Radha’s character. It is intriguing how two women, who set out to explore inner spaces through each other, are not given a moment of reflection or inwardness. It is as if the only way in which the inner spaces can be mediated is through the exploration of body. The moments of introspection, of insight, of personal discovery elude her characters as they hop in and out of bed, with total abandon. Such moments would have made the loneliness of the women more real, their angst somewhat palpable. But that is perhaps too much to expect of someone who simply refuses to use the language of silence in her cinematic expression; one who believes in piling up visuals at a breathless pace.

It is the treatment of Agnipariksha, the climactic moment of the film, that leaves much to be desired. If one were to believe that the film is about women discovering themselves in a space outside of men, a feminist statement of sorts, the least one would expect of it is to debunk the language of patriarchy, but does it? In the language of feminism, Agnipariksha, being a test of woman’s purity through fire, is the ultimate expression of repressive, patriarchal ideology. It is anti-women, to say the least. That doesn’t seem to deter Deepa Mehta at all. Rather than deconstruct the language of patriarchy, oddly enough, she legitimises it. Neeta must pass the test, discover her pristine purity before going out to join her soul mate, Radha. What has often been touted by patriarchy as a crucible of woman’s purity, in this case becomes a prelude to a woman’s assertion of her hidden powers. The mystique of a woman’s power is sought be built in the very language of patriarchy that it ought to have demolished.

What is at stake in the film is not morality, but aesthetics; not the grammar of values (which no one believes in, anyway) but the grammar of cinema. But that apparently is nobody’s concern. For everyone is too busy assessing the film in terms other than the ones it actively sets up. For some, the fact that the movie has been made by a Canada- based Indian is enough. For others, the 14 (a formidable number, indeed!) international awards are good enough to decide the rating of the film. Still others, are content to applaud it as the first Indian film on the subject.

Now all these are factors external to the film, which might help us understand it a shade better but certainly can’t help us evaluate it. If awards alone were the criterion, perhaps Gone With The Wind or Mother India would have never made the grade as first rate films in the classical mould. Deepa Mehta has, no doubt, picked up a challenging (I won’t say bold) idea but has she been able to rise up to it, effectively? Hasn’t she botched up a perfectly fine, a sensitive theme through her inept, shoddy treatment of the cinematic medium? How far has she been able to raise the film above the level of mere pornography? These are some of the questions Fire leaves us with.

All said and done, Fire is an eminently forgettable film, a genuine might have been, an opportunity lost, a potential wasted. Easily the kind of film that would have sunk from the collective public memory without a trace. But thanks to the sound and fury of conservatives and liberals, now it stands a fairly good chance of rising from the ashes to find a safe place in the annals of Indian cinema.

Go down in the history it will, but for all the wrong reasons. And the future generations would wonder in disbelief... well, could a mere film, a bad one at that, actually have set a whole nation on Fire?back

home Image Map
| This Above All | Chandigarh Heartbeat | Dream Analysis |
Auto Sense | Stamped Impressions | Regional Vignettes |
Fact File | Crossword | Stamp Quiz | Roots |