Sita (Nandita Das), a new bride in an arranged marriage, quickly finds that her married life isn't quite meeting her expectations. Her husband Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) is more interested in his sexy modern mistress than he is in Sita, leaving her alone night after night. As her romantic innocence is tarnished by this disillusionment, Sita finds a kindred soul in her elder sister-in-law Radha (Shabana Azmi), a dutiful wife who works hard in the family's restaurant kitchen all day, but who is also left alone most evenings while her husband Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda) devotes himself to religious pursuits. Sita and Radha bond in these lonely evenings, observing the city from a quiet distance on the roof of their home. Radha's traditional sensibilities are shaken, though, when Sita boldly initiates a sexual relationship with her.
Fire's story unfolds with a quiet, contemplative tone, paced by Radha's quiet, contemplative character; Deepa Mehta's camera often dwells on Radha's solitary silences as she ponders the conflict between her duty and her desire. Mehta also captures the surreptitious glances that pass between the two women, small moments of silent communication and understanding. Even in her climactic confrontation with Ashok, Radha maintains her stillness; her voice grows in intensity without rising in pitch or volume.
It almost goes without saying what makes Radha's introspective intensity so compelling - after all, these character traits might not seem the most cinemagenic - is the understated genius of Shabana Azmi's performance. This film was too controversial in India to have earned Shabana the kind of accolades that other exemplars of her best work have received, but she delivers as effectively in Fire as in any of her National Film Award roles. She conveys as much in her silences as in her dialogue, if not even more. You can almost hear the thoughts behind Radha's sad eyes as she gazes into the night sky; the screen crackles as she studies herself in the mirror after Sita's first bold kiss. It is a brilliant, iconic performance.
Although one criticism of Fire is that it suggests that Radha and Sita's sexual relationship is merely a reaction to being neglected by their husbands, the tenderness between the two women is palpable and genuine, not reactionary. Moreover, the story has a more subtle reading, as an allegory for a certain crossroads in Indian society: The family's frail, mute matriarch, Biji, represents tradition - weakened, but still a palpable presence; Sita, a bold yet innocent agent for change, represents modernity; and Radha, of course, is India, caught between the two, self-consciously examining the balance between her own desires and her responsibility to uphold traditional institutions. On this reading the message of the film is that steps toward modernity should surely be taken, but not without contemplation, not without consciousness, and certainly not without consequences.
Whatever its allegorical significance, though, Fire is most compelling to me at the small scale, as a story about a woman, Radha, asserting her sexual autonomy for the first time in her life. There are likely many factors that contributed to the controversy surrounding this film, but it's likely that one of them was Radha's ultimate assertion of independence: I have sexual desire, and if my husband refuses to satisfy it then I am justified in finding someone else who will. There are influential elements in American society that cannot accept a statement like that from a woman, and I'm sure similar sentiments exist in sectors of Indian society as well.