Deepa Mehta’s film Fire is the love story of two sisters-in-law from New Delhi, India.  The first, Radha, is the barren wife of Ashok.  She has been in a chaste marriage for over 15 years with him where they have “lived as brother and sister” because of her inability to have children.[1]  The second, Sita, is the young adventurous wife of the younger brother, Jatin.  These two women live with their husbands in an extended family.  In this essay, I will be evaluating a scene from Fire in which Radha stands up to Ashok for the first time.  The primary evaluation methods I will be using are the theories on visual pleasure in cinema developed by Laura Mulvey, using a negotiated reading.  The second section in Mulvey’s essay, “Woman as Image, Man as Bearer of the Look” is particularly helpful in this evaluation when she argues that males are the active viewer and females become the passive subjects, meant to represent male desire.[2]  Deepa Mehta counteracts this in multiple ways, such as with her use of bodily composition and the construction of the look.  Through these tools, Deepa Mehta moves Radha and Sita from passive subjects to main characters with agency and independence from male perception.  Deepa Mehta also deconstructs the performative aspects of womanhood through her development of desire, in particular the articulation of female desire which is subversive in the film.

The primary way in which Deepa Mehta constructs Radha and Sita as main characters is by constantly bringing them to the foreground when composing a shot.  One such example of this is the scene where Radha first defies her husband by not coming down from the balcony when he calls, and after speaking to him refusing to lie down next to him.  The scene starts with the camera in a corner, so that we can see the door as Radha walks in.  As Radha enters, Ashok asks “Where were you?”  Radha responds, saying “With Sita,” at which point there is a cut to a shot of Radha, smiling, filling the left part of the screen as we see Ashok’s blurry figure behind her (the camera could be interpreted as being from the angle of the mirror, therefore a direct reflection of what Radha is seeing) as he continues “maybe she is pregnant.”  We see Radha smile to herself at Ashok’s comment.  This moment highlights the humorous aspect of Ashok’s ignorance, as both Radha and the audience know that Sita is happier because she and Radha are having an affair.  Ashok then asks, “You didn’t hear me calling,” to which Radha replies “Yes, I did.”  Ashok, continuing his line of questioning asks, “Why didn’t you come” to which Radha replies “Sita says the concept of duty is overrated.”  Again, Radha smiles to herself.  This is because, although Ashok doesn’t know it yet, Radha is changing to agree with Sita.  This is emphasized when, still in the background, Ashok says “She is young, but you know it’s importance” before asking her to come fulfill her duty by laying down next to him so he can ensure he has no desire for her (meaning he doesn’t get an erection).  She declines, saying “Not tonight.”[3]  It is the first time in the film that we see her consider her own needs.

The reason this is subversive to the gaze is because the director is prioritizing a woman’s thoughts, emotions, and desires by featuring her in the foreground of the shot.  We can see all these things on her face because she is the primary focus.  In contrast, Ashok is devalued because we don’t see his face, but rather hear his voice from a blurry figure.

Another crucial point that Mulvey discusses in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” is identification.  Mulvey claims that because film is focused on the human form, “the wish to look intermingle with fascination with likeness and recognition,” meaning that the audience identifies with the image on the screen like a child first recognizes themselves in the mirror.[4]  Traditionally, this identification has only applied to men.  However, Fire has the opposite effect.  Because women are featured as the central characters, people develop their ego identifying with strong females.

Interestingly, Deepa Mehta works to subvert what a female is Fire, and successfully does so in this scene. Throughout the film, women perform their gender differently based on the role they are fulfilling in relation to those they are around.  This idea of performativity is based on Judith Butler’s idea that gender—and by consequence, sex—is constructed through repetitive performances of what we have identified as gender.[5]  This shift is demonstrated through the articulation of desire in Fire.  Through their desire, the women find a way to develop an identity outside of that which is a reflection of their husbands’ desires.  One of the more prominent scenes in which this is demonstrated is the one in which Radha first defies her husband by not coming down from the balcony when he calls, and after speaking to him refusing to lie down next to him.  It is the first time in the film that we see her consider her own needs and desires.  By doing this, Radha rejects her role as a subservient wife, taking on a traditionally masculine characteristic instead.

While Fire is full of subversive and feminist filmmaking approaches, the scene discussed in this essay truly stands out as a turning point for the main character.  By using theorists such as Butler and Mulvey, the scene can be deconstructed to understand what makes it uniquely empowering when evaluating gender and the look.  Deepa Mehta provides a chance for female empowerment through female identification and the rejection of performative acts and paves the way for future female filmmakers through her work.

[1] Fire, dir. Deepa Mehta, perf. Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi (Canada: Zeitgeist Films/Trial by Fire Films, 1996), DVD.

[2] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, (Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011)

[3] Fire

[4] Mulvey, 718.

[5] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (1988): , doi:10.2307/3207893.

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