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Friday, March 10, 2006

Burning Love: Notes on Deepa Mehta's Fire

I must admit, I wasn't expecting much when I sat down to view Fire, the first film in Deepa Mehta's "Elements" trilogy (Earth is the second; the third, Water, was released recently). I was extremely pleased to have my expectations hit for six.

Done badly, a film dealing with Fire's subject matter could have been strident or simplistic or sensationalist, or all three. Happily, it is none of those, but instead a complex, touching, even comic exploration of love and relationships in a hidebound society.

Mehta has generous compassion for all of her characters, women and men, who aren't stereotypical victims or oppressors but people in one way or another constricted by things--religion, tradition, family--beyond their control. Criticism of these things is implicit, but constant.

In fact, what struck me as most daring about the film was the religious criticism. On two occasions the story from the Ramayan of the god Ram's rejection of his wife Sita is recounted. Sita--also the name given to the young bride, played by Nandita Das--having been rescued from kidnap by the evil god Ravan, walks through fire to prove she has not been unfaithful to Ram. Even though she passes the test, Ram sends Sita away from him.

Ram's actions always struck me as grossly unjust. Here Deepa Mehta uses that story, as well as another, to show how the unfair treatment of women in modern society has religious justificiation: a more controversial proposition (to my mind) than the portrayal of a lesbian relationship (which had people rioting and destroying the Bombay cinemas).

On a few occasions the characters, particularly Sita, come across as mouthpieces spouting a message, but for the most part Mehta is content to let the story tell itself. And one could quibble with the ending as fantasy. But by and large this a fine film that anyone should be able to appreciate.

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