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Dilip Mehta

Relatively Speaking: Shabana Azmi (left) and Nandita Das forge an unlikely bond in Deepa Mehta's 'Fire.'

'Fire' consumes two women

By Richard von Busack

A GURU in the new film Fire informs his flock that "desire is the root of all evil." Indeed, desire completely unsettles a New Delhi household in this outstanding English-language Indian import. The naive, countrified and almost childlike bride Sita (Nandita Das) arrives in her new home to succumb to what Salman Rushdie refers to as the "Indian law of relativity"--relatives make the law. Sita becomes the lowest woman on the totem pole in the house of her husband, Jatin. Jatin's family runs a combination video-rental and kebab shop. Sita works there tirelessly, but her spouse can barely stand her. Jatin is still passionately in love with his mistress and visits the woman almost every night. Sita's sister-in-law, Radha (Shabana Azmi), is similarly neglected. The two women are left alone as caretakers for a fossilized old grandmother who incessantly tinkles a little bell to make her needs known. Surrounded by these impossibilities, the women create an impossibility of their own: they fall in love.

Fire is a passionate but often very funny movie, made under conditions of repression it would be hard for the average person to imagine. Censors in India still routinely cut the kissing scenes out of Indian movies. To defy them, director Deepa Mehta vixenishly includes a gratuitous, juicy French kiss between Jatin and his girlfriend. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mehta doesn't neglect the physical side of the love between the two women either. The actors make a well-matched couple: a smoldering older woman and a fresh young girl.

Among the weaker qualities of Fire are some too-sweet childhood flashbacks in a field of flowers, and Das' often too-knowing, studied acting as the young bride. But Fire also includes--and I was glad, because I do hate tragic movies about lesbians--some gutsy comic relief in the form of the sleazy servant Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry). A hopeless masturbator, the man is caught by Radha as he watches a porn tape titled The Joy Suck Club. (With injured dignity, he fishes for an apology after being punished: "So tell me, madam, why is taking so little pleasure deserving so many slaps?") This wanker may be too much for the delicate-minded, but otherwise Mehta has made a film that scarcely deserves to be pigeonholed as a gay-interest movie. Fire is a romantic, well-paced and beautifully photographed movie about subject No. 1 in India: the irresistible modern world colliding with centuries of immovable tradition.

Fire (Unrated; 104 min.), directed and written by Deepa Mehta, photographed by Giles Nuttgens and starring Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro.

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