Sunday, July 6, 2008

Film Analysis of “Fire,” by Sarah Siegel

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ORLJ 5340, Section 002: Basic Practicum in Conflict Resolution, Summer B, Collaborative Negotiation and Mediation Skills,
Teachers College, Columbia University

[Since I've written two papers this weekend, I've not had time to blog as much as I'd like, and so I wanted at least to post this one in lieu of blogging live....The assignment was: "See a film with a cross-cultural conflict [this film was on the list of films my professors suggested]. Analyze one conflict in the film from a cross-cultural negotiation perspective, applying the collaborative negotiation model(s) you have learned (about 4-5 pages)." Spoiler alert: I give away much of the plot of the movie....]

“Fire” represented a slice of Delhi-based, Hindu culture in the mid-'90s. Sita, the new bride of the joint family’s younger brother, Jatin, challenged the culture by asserting her free will, which was at odds with the typical behavior of women in the society, and which led to a giant conflict ultimately. Biji, the mother of Jatin and of Ashok, Jatin’s older brother, who was married to Radha, represented traditional, Indian society. For most of the film, Ashok sought renouncement of all desire; Sita sought fulfillment of her desire; and Sita’s husband, Jatin, and sister-in-law, Radha, were caught in-between tradition and fulfilling their desires.

Kimmel (1994, p. 189) wrote that ethnocentric people were, “…convinced of the superiority of their ways of doing and thinking about things.” And “cultural chauvinists” had, “…little knowledge of or interest in people with different subjective cultures.” Arguably, Radha’s deeply Hindu husband, Ashok, demonstrated ethnocentricity while their servant, Mundu, who was not well-educated, and Biji, who also might not have been as well-educated as the succeeding generation, most likely were cultural chauvinists. In either case, they did not accept anyone’s deviation from the traditional Hindu, Indian path (though in Mundu’s case, his intolerance was hypocritical due to his pornography habit).

If there had been any collaborative negotiation between, say, Ashok and Radha, or Jatin and Sita, it would have been intracultural (from the same culture), according to Lewicki, Barry, & Saunders (2007, p. 243), and might, according to research, they wrote, have had a better outcome than a cross-cultural negotiation. For example, Jatin’s on-the-side, Chinese girlfriend, Julie’s, father was impossible to reason with about the goodness of India or Indians due to the discrimination that his family and he had faced throughout their lives in India.

Jatin did not even try to help the father see it differently. He agreed, “Yes, the Indians are a complex people.”

By contrast, when Sita slapped Jatin back after he hit her, he told her she was lucky that he didn’t believe in violence, which was a departure from how a number of the men operated in the culture; the outcome of the particular intracultural conflict between Jatin and Sita, in that case, was more positive than it might have been.

What if any of the filmmaker’s characters had been skilled in negotiation – had had some tools? What if they had taken Hammer’s (2008, p. 8) survey to determine their intercultural conflict styles? For example, what if Radha had known explicitly that according to Hammer, being from an indirect culture, it was common to show disagreement through using metaphors and stories? She could have shared with her husband the childhood memory that had morphed into a metaphor, of being in the field of flowers with her parents as a little girl and struggling to imagine that she could see the ocean. She could have used it to help him see that their life as it was kept her from “seeing the ocean.”

How much less heart-ache would the film have included if only its characters had had some theoretical understanding, first, of culture, and then of how to resolve their conflicts constructively through cooperative, integrative negotiation? They would have recognized themselves as part of what Hofstede, in Lewicki, Barry, & Saunders (2007, p. 236) referred to as a collectivist culture, being a joint family of two brothers and their wives, living in one home with their older mother, which was not uncommon in India, where there was no Social Security. They would have also acknowledged that historically, they conformed to the dimension of “Power Distance” by Hofstede, in Lewicki, Barry, & Saunders (2007, p. 236), where the husband, in this case, was the ultimate decision maker and it was the wife’s duty to obey no matter the cost to her self-actualization.

If they had read more of Lewicki, Barry, & Saunders (2007), Ashok, Radha, Sita and Jatin would have learned about “cultural attribution error:”
…even though culture describes group-level characteristics, it doesn’t mean that every member of a culture will share those characteristics equally. In fact, there is likely to be as wide a variety of behavioral differences within cultures as there is between cultures. Although knowledge of the other party’s culture may provide an initial clue about what to expect at the bargaining table, negotiators need to be open to adjusting their view very quickly…(pp. 234-235).

Jatin could have avoided making a cultural attribution error by recognizing that although Sita dressed traditionally, and practiced the rituals of their Hindu religion, she did not necessarily think traditionally about her gender role.

Lewicki, Barry, & Saunders (2007) also would have taught the “Fire” characters about the “culture-as-dialectic approach,” which the authors wrote was praised by Janosik for its acknowledgement that just because people were in the same culture, did not necessarily signify that they shared the same values equally (p. 238). If Ashok had understood his culture in dialectic terms, he might have recognized that not everyone in his family valued the spiritual guidance of Swamiji to the extent that he did.

What if the characters had demonstrated any of Lewicki’s, Barry’s, and Saunders’ seven preconditions for better integrative negotiations (2007):
The presence of a common goal, faith in one’s own problem-solving ability, a belief in the validity of the other party’s position, the motivation and commitment to work together, trust, clear and accurate communication, and an understanding of the dynamics of integrative negotiation (pp. 77-82).

What if they had followed cooperative behavior norms that Deutsch (2006) laid out? The first, around “…identifying common ground and common interests” (p. 35) would have required Sita, Jatin, Ashok, Radha and Mundu to agree that all of them shared a struggle with desire.

In Deutsch’s (2006) second norm, when they described their struggles, for example, in Ashok’s case, the renunciation of his desire compared to the new recognition and embrace of hers by his wife, Radha, they would, “…need to refrain from making personal attacks” (p. 35). If only Radha could have safely spoken with Ashok, telling him what she told Sita, “It scares me….This isn’t familiar for me – this awareness of needs, of desires.” If only when Jatin told Sita about his need to be with Julie, he could have done so respectfully and if only in response, Sita could have refrained from calling him a “…pompous fool,” Sita’s and Jatin’s argument might not have escalated into violence.

If only Radha had followed Deutsch’s (2006) third norm when she caught Mundu, watching pornography while caring for her mother-in-law, rather than the religious movies that they were supposed to be watching, he might not have felt the need to retaliate and expose Radha’s extra-marital sexual activity. If only she had sought “…to understand [Mundu’s] views from [his] perspective” (p. 35) in the moment, rather than later, the entire story might have been less dramatic in its tragedy. She did acknowledge that Mundu’s wish for some sexual pleasure was similar to hers, but only to Sita, and only after it was too late for peaceful resolution.

If only Ashok could have followed Deutsch’s (2006) fourth norm, building on Radha’s comment, “Sita says the concept of duty is overrated,” by listening and acknowledging the value of the idea (p. 35), rather than responding brusquely, “She’s young, but you know better,” Radha might have felt less driven to run from her relationship with Ashok.

Fortunately, unconsciously, Radha followed Deutsch’s (2006) fifth norm and did limit her, “…expression of…negative feelings…” (p. 35) when Sita suggested they run away together and start a take-away restaurant. Ultimately, they did run away together, and they might not have allowed themselves to do so, if either had broken the fifth norm.

Everyone needed to follow Deutsch’s (2006) sixth norm, and “Take responsibility for the harmful consequences…of what you do and say; seek to undo the harm as well as openly accept responsibility and make sincere apology for it” (p. 35). Even Ashok, in his aspiration toward purity, was sadistic in his denial of his wife’s pleasure and in teasing her for 13 years, making her lie next to him to prove how he was beyond temptation.

Deutsch’s (2006) seventh norm would have spoiled the high drama of the film, but would have been the right next action – if only everyone had sought reconciliation after everyone had apologized sincerely for their harm and had pledged to try to undo the harm (p. 35).

Deutsch’s (2006) eighth norm would have required being responsive “…to the other’s legitimate needs,” (p. 35) and so Biji would have been treated as a human being, rather than as a feeding and bathing schedule that needed to be kept…perhaps, Biji would not have been so frustrated and might have been more flexible with and loyal to her family, if they had shown love and loyalty to her; Mundu would have been given some private time off, rather than having to work continuously, so that he had time and his own space for recreation of his choice; Ashok would have been allowed to leave the secular world and join Swamiji full-time; Jatin would have been able to divorce Sita and go to Hong Kong with his girlfriend (just as Ashok had a picture of Swamiji on Radha’s and his bedroom wall, Jatin had posters of Bruce Lee on his and Sita’s); and Radha and Sita would have been allowed to stay together and run the video store and take-away....

Deutsch’s (2006) ninth norm of cooperation would have meant that the people in the film were dedicated to a “cooperative problem-solving process,” (p. 35). They would have had to be because they would have needed to negotiate how to care for Biji ongoingly, since both of her sons wished to move away.

Deutsch’s (2006) tenth norm, of being “…appropriately honest,” (p. 35), i.e., not cruelly so and not doubt-engenderingly so, served Radha and Sita well. “Radha, did we do anything wrong?” Sita asked, following the first time they were intimate.

“No,” responded Radha. Had she responded, “Yes,” then on top of the suffering they felt due to their absent husbands, they would have felt shame, perhaps even the suicidal sort ultimately.

Finally, Deutsch’s (2006) eleventh norm needed everyone’s thoughtful adherence, but it was heeded by none of them; it required that throughout the conflict, they remain “…caring and just – and consider the other as a member of one’s moral community – therefore, as a person who is entitled to care and justice” (p. 36). If they had, everyone would have acknowledged and respected Biji's humanity; Biji would not have spit in Radha's face; Ashok would not have threatened to turn over Mundu to the police; Sita would have been able to challenge some gender stereotypes without provoking domestic abuse; Jatin would have not have had to marry Sita; and Radha might have found a way to "see the ocean" without jumping ship...but considering all that could have been different, yet was not, culture and desire trumped cooperative behavior norms in "Fire."


Bedi, B., & Mehta, D. (Producers), & Mehta. D. (Writer/Director). (1996). Fire [Motion picture]. India: Zeitgeist Films.

Deutsch, M. (2000). Cooperation and competition. In The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. (Deutsch, M. & Coleman, P. Editors). Chapter 1, pp. 21-40. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hammer, M.R. (2008). Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory and Interpretive Guide. Ocean Pines, MD: Hammer Consulting LLC.

Kimmel, Paul R. (1994). Cultural perspectives on international negotiations. Journal of Social Issues, Volume 50, No.1, 1994, pp. 179-196. USA.

Lewicki, R.J., Barry, B., & Saunders, D.M. (2007). Essentials of Negotiation (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Irwin-McGraw Hill.

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