Deepa Mehtas film Fire depicts the ways and complexities that is attached to same-sex desire in a culture that is dominated by men and full of societal/cultural norms. This film also achieved the goal of representing women and their multiple identities as well as reproducing these norms that challenged gendered and sexual ideologies. I will argue that this film critiques the norms of patriarchy, heterosexuality, the representation of women and their sexuality as well as other subjects that are continuously deemed as a taboo.
This will be supported by Gayle Rubins concept of compulsory heterosexuality and Stevi Jacksons view on the complexity (and limits) of heteronormativity and how religion works to regulate and surveille womens sexuality. I will discuss several themes that intersect with one another that also support the thesis and were present and significant throughout the film. I will also go on to discuss relevance to the films reference to the Hindu religious story from the Ramayana and its function to the larger narrative of the film.
Drawing on Gayle Rubins definition of compulsory heterosexuality, it refers to the fact that heterosexuality is considered as something natural and the right choice when it comes to sexuality. This is a theme that was present throughout the film as it showed women being assigned a secondary position compared to the men. In addition, because of the gender differences which also acts as a form of cultural distinction, the women (Sita and Radha) interacted and interpreted the world differently through their everyday routines which was a form of regulating and surveillance. Both women are supposed to act as traditional wives who are meant to cook, clean, shop for the family as well as be the primary caregivers to Biji, the paralyzed mother to Ashok. According to Stevi Jackson, the notion of heterosexuality is the key intersection between gender and sexuality but also the intersection between sexual and non-sexual aspects of ones life. He also discusses the idea of sexuality as being significant when thinking about desire, practices, identities and relationships. This is evident in the film as Ashok (Radhas husband) vowed to start a life of celibacy when he found out that Radha was unable to bear children. This act also shows proof that women are meant to have sex only for the sake of procreating. While Jatin (Sitas husband) was involved with another woman. Both men did not acknowledge the fact that their wives need and desires were just as important as theirs. This sexual neglection from both husbands caused Sita and Radha to develop feelings for each other but due to their cultural and gendered ideologies/expectations, they were forced to repress those feelings. This brings me to the theme heteronormativity, which is not only defined as a normal sexual practice but also as a normal way of living. The film showcases that because as it progresses, both women continue to explore their sexuality which causes Sita to state that, there is no word in (their) language for what (they) are, how (they) feel for each other. This statement was directed to Radha as both women are aware that homosexuality, sex or the feeling of desire are not subjects that are up for discussion, instead, it is looked at as a taboo. Although, the film presents desire as something fulfilling and this is visible as Radha was about to leave and Ashok claimed that desire brings ruin. This caused Radha to say that, without desire (she) was dead . (she) desire(s) Sita, (she) desire(s) to live . This indicates that Radha was not living because she was not experiencing the love and desire she deserves. The representation of women throughout this film allowed both women to have a choice, to question the patriarchal system, to challenge cultural stereotypes, to dispute and go against the expectations put on them as women.
Furthermore, the film references the story of Rama and Sita, a Hindu religious story from Ramayana. This reference is relevant because in the story, Sita was put through an ordeal of fire to prove her virtue, which she successful passed and was reborn into the heroin of her own story. There was a live acting of this in a scene from the film which was watched by Ashok. This reference serves as a significant function in terms of the larger narrative as the Ramayana story foreshadows the climax at the end of the film, Radhas ordeal of fire. At the end of the film, both Radha and Sita decide to leave together but before Radha explains to Sita that she needs to speak to Ashok and she would meet up with her. As the film progresses, Radha expresses her feelings for Sita and what she wants in her life to Ashok. Furious, Ashok slaps and pushes Radha aside which made her sari to come in contact with the stove, causing her to catch on fire as Ashok watches. Unbothered, Ashok carries Biji out of the house, leaving Radha to burn just like Sita from the Ramayana story. Nevertheless, just like the story, Radha was also reborn as walks in the rain to go meet Sita as they agreed on. The fire acts as a symbol of pain, warmth, passion and in this context, it represented a test of innocence. In addition, the ordeal of fire is one that Radha beats as she overcomes and is ultimately free from everything she has been through. However, Deepa Mehtas changes the interpretation of this myth that the Hindu culture is typically used to. According to the myth, Sita goes through the ordeal of fire to sacrifice herself and prove something to her husband which goes to show how the culture is a patriarchal one but Mehta changes the interpretation in Radhas ordeal by showing women in the culture the importance of change and that this ordeal was more of a personal choice than an act to please a man.
In conclusion, Gayle Rubins definition of compulsory heterosexuality as well as Stevi Jacksons view and definitions of various themes such as gender, sexuality, heterosexuality and heteronormativity in relation to Mehtas film allows us to view womens same-sex eroticism in a patriarchal culture that demands a certain way of living. Using Gayle Rubins and Stevi Jacksons work, I am able to see how this film successfully represented women in ways that challenged gendered and sexual ideologies and this is also relevant as it shows in Mehtas interpretation of the Ramayana myth which shifted the whole narrative of the film.