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October 24, 1997


'I simply can't understand the stereotyping women as film-makers who make soppy family dramas'

Battling conventions: Deepa Mehta Click for bigger pic!
Deepa Mehta's Fire is the story of two women who, frustrated by marriage, find solace in each other. It targets the traditional role of Indian women which demands that they quietly bow to fate and husband.

In Fire, Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda) have been enduring a dry and barren marriage for the last 15 years. Ashok's brother Jatin (Jaaved Jaaferi) marries Sita (Nandita Das), but continues his relationship with his Chinese girlfriend.

But Sita, no wallflower, refuses to live by standards other than her own, and her relationship to Radha slowly goes from fellow victim to lover.

Fire caused much heartburn during its first screening at the International Film Festival of India in Thiruvananthapuram in January. Many men expressed shock at the behaviour portrayed. And despite all the issues of gender and marriage it raised, it became infamous as a "lesbian" film.

Deepa Mehta didn't mind. "What Fire has done is that it has started a dialogue among the men and women. That is what I want as a film-maker," she says.

Ahead of her lie the shooting of Earth, Vikram Seth's Suitable Boy and the final part of her trilogy, Water.

Here, in an interview with Suparn Verma, she explains her motives and compulsions for making Fire.

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Sen in Fire. Click for bigger pic!
Why has Fire been dubbed a lesbian film?

I have no idea why they have labelled it a lesbian film. Maybe because people like to talk about sex. I don't know. Lesbianism has become the simplest way to raise a discussion about the film. I just don't care now. I used to care a lot, because Fire is not a film about lesbians. But now they can talk about any aspect of the film. I just don't care...

I didn't make Fire for the section of audience who can't understand the film and just talk about sex; there are audiences in India who will understand Fire. India is not a monolithic society.

Fire is about choices, the choices we make in life which may lead to alienation. By the bisexuality theme in the film, I have just shown an extreme choice. But the end result is that you cannot have everything in your life. Happiness does not fall into your lap; in fact, happiness is too ephemeral a word.

You have to choose in life. Ultimately, you have to take a risk. You may hate your job -- you have the choice of doing it or leaving it. You will risk alienation and a lot of hardships by sitting at home doing what you like, like painting or writing for yourself. But one has to make a choice because, before you know, it's death.

Shabana Azmi in Fire. Click for bigger pic!
But are you trying to make a statement, to send out a message through her film?

Fire is not a film that has any kind of message. I wanted to make a film which discussed the choices we have to make... There was no personal happening that influenced the film. It's not biographical.

In the past film-makers have made trilogies. Like Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy and Krystof Kieslowski's Three Colours. Why did you go for a trilogy based on fire, earth and water?

I am making a trilogy because I wanted to make film dealing with the elements of life. Fire is about desire. Earth is about basic instincts; in fact, Earth is about the Partition of India and Pakistan. It is about the partition of earth and the loss of innocence. Water is about a young widow in Benares.

What about space?

(Laughs) Space? Space has nothing in it -- it doesn't interest me.

Deepa Mehta Click for bigger pic!
Were you influenced by others, like Kieslowski, who made trilogies?

I find Kieslowski to be one of the finest film-makers of our time, but I'm not trying to repeat his trilogy in any way. There have been other trilogies too, like Ray's Apu series. There are sequels and prequels to many film abroad. My films are all set in different time zones, so you won't have a round-up in the final part.

Nandita Das, who gave a superlative performance in Fire, plays a Muslim girl in Earth. Has she become a permanent fixture in your films?

No, it's not a conscious decision to have Nandita first in Fire and now in Earth. She suited the role and she is a very fine actress.

Your choice of Akshaye Khanna and Chandrachur Singh -- is it an attempt to keep the film in the media glare? After all, Earth, unlike Fire, will be made in Hindi too.

Shabana Azmi in a dream sequence from Fire. Click for bigger pic!
I chose Akshaye and Chandrachur not because of their market value but because they are very sensitive actors who fit the part perfectly and are dedicated enough to play their parts.

The term woman film-maker seems to segregate the women from the men. What is the difference between films made by men and by women?

To make a film is very difficult -- it doesn't make a difference whether you are a man or a woman. Film-making needs money. A film might be a director's vision but, all said and done, it's a collaborative effort. To make films isn't easy. These days there a lots of women in various professions. Film-making just happens to be one of them. Though I simply can't understand the stereotyping women as film-makers who make soppy family dramas. Look at Katherine Bigelow: she has directed Point Break and Strange Days (the latter was criticised for its excessive violence).

I hate labels of any kind. Just because you are a woman you can't do this or that? Twenty years ago women entering the work force was enough of a shock. People just like the predictable; they feel safe with it. You know, it's such a bore.

Nandita Das in Fire. Click for bigger pic!
Your first feature film Sam and Me is in many ways reminiscent of the Oscar award-winning Scent of a Woman.

There are very few stories in the world. I didn't see Scent of a Woman and make my film. It's just a coincidence that the themes and emotions overlap. The two are very different films anyway.

Your second film, Camilla, starring Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda, explored the relationship between two women. Was it the sowing ground for the germ of Fire?

No. Camilla is a very different film. Fire is something I wanted to do that would show the choices available in life.

What other projects are you working on?

AfterEarth which will be shot in Lahore, I will be starting work on A Suitable Boy, based on the novel by Vikram Seth next year in November. The film is being produced by a producer in England (David Putnam is the name being mentioned: Editor). After that film is over I will start work on the final part of my trilogy, Water. At present, though, I don't even have time to breath as we begin shooting for Earth.

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