More than a year has passed since it premièred at the 1996 Toronto International Film Festival. Only now is Fire finally being released in Canadian theatres. And from the beginning, there has been a nagging question about its status: as a story set in New Delhi and shot in India with an all-Indian cast, can it be considered a Canadian movie?
Not according to Telefilm Canada’s guidelines, which forced Toronto writer-director Deepa Mehta to seek all funding for the $1.6-million movie privately. But the Toronto festival considered the film Canadian enough to give it the opening spot of its Perspective Canada program. Fire, which has inflamed controversy in Indian communities around the world, has since been bought by distributors in 30 countries. The very last territory to buy it— even after the United States—was Canada. “I’m more bemused than bitter,” says Mehta, 47. “This seems to be a country that says hang onto your heritage, and if you do you’re penalized for it.”
After being burned by Camilla (1994)— which allowed her to work with Hollywood
stars (Bridget Fonda and Jessica Tandy) but robbed her of creative control—the Indianborn director has re-emerged, phoenix-like, with Fire. It is a feminist tale of two wives who overturn tradition in a middle-class New Delhi household. Radha—played by the magnetic Indian star Shabana Azmi— runs a takeout restaurant and lives upstairs with a husband who has become celibate to serve his spiritual guru. She finds solace with her sister-in-law, Sita (Nandita Das), a young bride whose new husband
refuses to give up his Chinese mistress.
In Mehta’s pointed depiction of Indian sexism, the male characters are all rudely emblematic of a desperate gender—right down to the household servant, Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry), who shocks Radha’s stroke-paralyzed mother by masturbating to X-rated videos. But the tender friendship between the two wives, which blossoms into an inflammatory romance, has real depth.
Although the script’s didactic touches are jarring, the movie’s lyricism casts a spell. Fire is gorgeously photographed, with interiors swathed in orange and cinnamon fabrics. The shy love scene between the women takes place in a boudoir veiled with mosquito netting, an oasis of sensual calm. The movie’s portrayal of sexual transgression seems tame by Canadian standards. But, under pressure from Indian communities, it has been banned in Singapore and Kenya. And after a Calgary screening, recalls Mehta, “an Indian man came up to me and said, ‘How could you do a film about the Lword?’ ” But Mehta insists that “it isn’t a lesbian film. It’s about my roots, about arranged marriages, about that whole weight of tradition.” Meanwhile, Fire has sparked a new project for its director. Mehta plans to make it the first instalment of a trilogy: she already has financing to shoot Water, a $3.4-million movie set in the 1920s on the banks of the Ganges, and has written the script for Earth, set during the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Testing the traditions of her homeland, and redrawing the frontiers of Canadian film-making, Deepa Mehta has braved the elements and rekindled her career. □
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