Wednesday, February 25, 1998


Posted By on Wed, Feb 25, 1998 at 12:00 AM

The Detroit Film Theatre's recent offerings have included many artistically grand, if socially moderate, pictures. Veteran film director Deepa Mehta's Fire looks to break that trend. Mehta's feature about two unhappy wives in a New Delhi household disproves myths about India with an ease that surpasses subversion.

As the story opens, Sita (Nandita Das), a ravishing bride on her honeymoon, stands in a public square wearing a sari and gawks at the Taj Mahal, which looms many yards ahead. Sita's husband Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi), an inarticulate boor, also watches nearby, but in a state of boredom. Dressed in Western-style casuals, Jatin is quite detached from the cultural monument -- and his wife, for that matter. Theirs is an arranged marriage, we learn, and Jatin's love for his Chinese mistress looks to be the cusp to dismantle this traditional arrangement.

Jatin and Sita live with Jatin's older brother Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda), a budding mystic, and his wife of 15 years, Radha (played by legendary Indian movie star Shabana Azmi). Ashok and Radha's marriage is even more unfulfilling than the aforementioned one. Under the tutelage of a dubious swami, Ashok is celibate and trying to rid himself of all desire. Although Radha cannot bear children, Ashok's "tests" of his resolve against her sexuality while they're in bed are too cruel.

Rounding out this scenario of domestic dysfunction are Ashok's mother Biji (Kushal Rekhi), who is paralyzed from a stroke, and household servant Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), who jerks himself off to porno tapes while he's with her, since she can say and do nothing in protest.

As one might judge from the female protagonists, Mehta harbors some anger toward modern-day India. Born in Amritsar and a resident of Canada where there's a thriving Hindu film community, she picks her cultural targets pointedly. Both the modernist Jatin and the traditionalist Biji appear as willing agents in the wives' repression. The film's problems are culturally based, but suffice it to say that in their indignation, the women turn to each other for aid and recognition.

Fire's dialogue, which is in English, rocks with intelligence and candor. In her narrative of deprived women making redress for their cultural wronging, Mehta has crafted a tale of irrevocable character and power. Her solid script winds this metaphorical story into a nuanced tale on the unity of the oppressed. Fire burns.

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