Fire is a story of sexual hypocrisy in a lower-middle-class Hindu family in Delhi. The family—an elderly mother disabled by a stroke, her 2 sons and their wives, and a male servant—live together above their takeout restaurant and video store. The wives are unloved and sexually rejected by their husbands; the male servant is repulsive in his own way.
The older brother prides himself on living a life of pious sexual abstinence, brahmacharya, based on the Hindu belief that desire is the root cause of rebirth into the cycle of suffering. In reality he is punishing his wife, whom he blames because they have been unable to have children. She accepts the blame and works hard to take care of the family and the restaurant.
The younger brother sells pornography to children at the video store to support his Chinese mistress and ignores his young wife, whom he married through an arranged marriage. Having established the sordid nature of the men in the family, Mehta draws the victimized wives into a lesbian love affair and affirms their sexual relationship. Rebelling against her servitude, the elder of the 2 wives tells her pious husband that she has chosen to live a life instead of penitently waiting for death.
The reason that fundamentalists firebombed movie screens was that, in addition to mocking religious asceticism and affirming lesbianism, Mehta's screenplay parodied a famous Rama and Sita story in Hindu scripture. Sita, a goddess, proves that she has been sexually faithful to her husband, the god Rama, by going through a trial by fire. Mehta's heroine, the older sister-in-law, is subjected to an enactment of the trial by fire when her husband discovers her lesbian affair. She survives the fire but abandons her husband and leaves the family home to rendezvous with her lover. The controversy surrounding Fire had a longer life than the film itself and helped make Mehta's reputation.
Earth, the next film in the trilogy, was based on Bapsi Sidhwa's best-selling novel Cracking India. It described, from a child's point of view, the tumultuous year of 1947, when India was partitioned and millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs were turned out of their homes and slaughtered by their neighbors. Unfortunately, neither the acting nor the epic scenes were compelling enough to make the novel come to life on-screen.
If Mehta had not been stopped by the violence in Varanasi, Water could have easily been much like Earth because many of the same actors and themes were going to be used in the film. But when the fundamentalists forced her to temporarily abandon Water, she turned her attention to a lighter film that may have brought new life to the trilogy.
That film was Bollywood/Hollywood, a thoroughly entertaining musical comedy that became a huge commercial success in Canada and elsewhere in the Indian diaspora. The film playfully engaged the conflicts of Indian identity and assimilation, conflicts that Mehta still struggles with herself, and provided a comic resolution in which love conquers all.
In Bollywood/Hollywood, a glamorous leading actress, Lisa Ray, was cast. Ray is a woman of Indian and Polish descent who has become India's foremost fashion model. When Mehta returned to Water she brought Ray with her to play the beautiful widow who is sold into prostitution.