Nothing turns up the heat of a soap opera like some good old-fashioned repression. In Fire (Zeitgeist), Sita (Nandita Das), eager and model gorgeous, finds herself in a miserable marriage to a sullen video-store clerk. She moves into the home he shares with his middle-aged brother, whose own wife (Shabana Azmi) is drowning in sensual neglect. Let’s see, is there anything the two wives can do for each other?

The subjugation of women in modern India is an epic topic for a movie (it was treated with seductive subtlety in Satyajit Ray’s The Home and the World). But Fire, written and directed by Deepa Mehta, uses the lure of a forbidden lesbian relationship as a chance to revel in sisterhood-is-everything righteousness. What looks like an ”art” movie is actually an exercise in ’70s nostalgia — when I saw it, the audience practically hissed each time the men showed up to execute some noxious patriarchal gesture. Still, when the heroines throw off their docile reserve and melt into each other’s bosoms, it’s with the grateful passion of a thirst finally quenched. As a director, Mehta would do well to stop smothering her empathy in glibness (she uses the family’s ancient mute grandmother as a sitcom prank), but her empathy pokes through nonetheless. It’s there in the way she employs the veteran actress Shabana Azmi, whose woeful gaze reflects centuries of hidden yearning. B-

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