Guinvere Turner reviews lesbian movie Fire for The Advocate

STAR OF INDIA from Advocate magazine 4/1999

The lesbian love story FIRE has already touched off violence in its native India.
But the film´s famous leading lady doesn´t scare easily.

By Guinevere Turner Fire DVD

When I saw Fire for the first time, I cried before anything sad actually happened. It´s kind of film that gets you on 12 levels at once. It is story of Radha and Sita, sisters-in-law who, finding very little love in their marriages and feeling confined by traditional family roles the´re expected to fulfill, become friends and eventually fall in love.

It was my distinct honor to interview Shabana Azmi, who plays Radha in the film and whose credential both on- and offscreen are so impressive that I was almost unnerved at the idea of talking with her. I had every reason to be and at the same time no reason at all.

Azmi has lived all her life in Bombay, India, and has been in more than 100 films in her 20-year career. As if this weren’t impressive enough (five films a year!), she is, in her own words, “an activist.” She received a human rights award from the late French president Francois Mitterand; she undertook a five-day hunger strike for slum dwellers in Bombay; she is on the United Nations´Eminent Citizens Committee for Cairo with Jane Fonda and Ted Turner; and she is a new member of Parliament in India.

My first question is, “How do you have time to do even half of what you do?” Before I’ve finished the question, she urges, I think if you wait for time to fall in your lap, nothing will ever happen.” Having said that, she promptly acknowledges the support she gets from her family and from her husband, which allows her to be “freed from traditional responsibilities that women have to take on.”

When Azmi first read the script for Fire , by Canadian-Indian writer-director Deepa Mehta, she loved it but was apprehensive about taking on the film.” It is difficult for people in a deeply religious society like India to throw their lot in with someone who speaks outside of religion like I do, “she says.” I thought the film would be used against me,because there are so many men saying that you mustn’t listen to someone like me? I was worried that it would be used to destabilize me on issues that are very dear to me politically.” So she said no to the project.” And then I felt miserable,” she says.

Mehta asked her to show it to someone she trusted. Azmi took it to her husband, screenwriter Javed Akhtar. “He asked me, ´Do you believe in what this film is saying?´ and I said, ´Yes!´ He said,´Do you feel that your integrity will be compromised in any way by doing it?´ and I said, ´Of course not!´ He said, ´Well, then, why don´t you do it?´”

Azmi now says she felt a weight lifted when she signed on. “Fire is an important film,” she explains, “not because it deals with the taboo topic of lesbianism but because it says that when people make choices that are different from choices we make, instead of condemning them, we should empathize? not tolerate, but empathize? with them.”

As lesbian fans can attest, Fire´s erotic same-sex love scene involves more than empathy. I ask Azmi how it was to work with the actress who plays Sita, Nandita Das. “Well, firstly, I loved her the minute I saw her,” Azmi replies. “Her face is so open and so beautiful. And Deepa just threw us into bed, literally, on first day. We giggled like little schoolgirls, and Deepa said, ´OK, giggle, but you can´t keep giggling forever!”

It is important to put this film in context in terms of gay and lesbian issues in India right now. There are no “queer films” in India, says Azmi. “One or two films about cross-dressing and transgender issues were made at the same time as Fire, and the issue of homosexuality has been explored in some documentaries and short films, but I think Fire marks the first time it is addressed in a feature film,” she says. “Gay men and lesbians are going through painful times in India right now. There are arranged marriages. There are people being accused of incompetence in their jobs because they are known to be gay or lesbian. Two women police officers just won a landmark case, defending their rights to perform their duties as officers despite their choices. The issue are only just now being articulated as a public concern.”

Although Fire doesn´t open in India´s theaters until the spring, it sparked rage at its January 1997 premiere at the Indian International Film Festival. A mostly male crowd broke through glass doors and climbed rafters to see the film, then mobbed the street afterward to shout death threats at the director. I ask Azmi if she is concerned that the film´s release could damage her power as a politican. “I was nominated by the president of India to Parliment partially in recognition of my work as an actress,” she says. “I feel completely comfortable about the work I have done. I feel good and healthy and wonderful about it, and if there are sources that are going to try to use it, well, tough luck. But it in no way is going to change my viewpoint on something that I believe is a work of tremendous integrity.”

Finally I ask her; If she could imagine herself in ten years, what is her biggest dream and her worst nightmare? She laughs. “I don´t plan my life!” she says. “I think my biggest strength and my biggest weakness are same thing?I am not afraid of failure. Because of this I am willing to take many more risks than people would take normally, and I put my finger into many pies, and sometimes I get burned. But this is the kind of thing that makes you grab life by the horns. It makes you say, ´I don´t want much? I just want more!”

FIRE the complexities of a lesbian relationship in India, starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das directed by Deepa Mehta
(India, 1997)

Interview thanks to Kent