Sita and Radha are married to brothers, and are both disappointed in their marriages. As their frustration mounts, they find comfort in each other's arms - much to the consternation of their conservative family and neighbours
Deepa Mehta returned to her homeland for this controversial drama which not only tackles some of that society's most vexing taboos but also confronts Indian cinema's celebrated conservatism by actually depicting adultery, pornography, masturbation and lesbianism.
Enslaved by the proscribed status of women, Rhadha (Azmi) is the mainstay of her husband's New Delhi takeaway while simultaneously caring for his ageing mother. However, it's a marriage in name only as Ashok (Kharbanda) has foresworn sex as part of his personal battle against temptation. His brother Jatin (Jaaferi), on the other hand, continues to see his Chinese mistress, even though he has only recently fulfilled an arranged marriage to Sita (Das), a seemingly timid innocent whose growing self awareness prompts Rhadha to defy tradition and follow her heart.
Previously best known for directing Jessica Tandy's final feature Camilla, Mehta emerges here as a serious rival to Mira Nair. Skilfully exploring such themes as thwarted passion, spiritual obsession without undue insistence, she neatly leavens the mix with witty parodies of the musical numbers and mythological set pieces that are the cornerstones of Indian cinema.
One of the few performers with a following in both Bollywood and its arthouse counterpart, the so-called Parallel Cinema, Azmi is superb as the dutiful wife who slowly learns to be true to herself. Combining mystery with mischief, newcomer Das also impresses, particularly in the opening sequence at the Taj Mahal (the monument to love), when she realises her husband of just three days despises her. The male characters are less well drawn, although Ranjit Choudry is typically assured as the embittered servant whose only escape from exploitative toil is to sneak porn flicks from under the counter of Jatin's video store.
Audacious, yet sensitive, Fire may shock traditionalists but is the sort of film that ought to win Indian cinema a whole new audience.