Agni Agonies
Video & Performance

Agni Agonies is a compilation reel of Indian women surviving fires in Bollywood (and some Hollywood) cinema, with performance interventions.

Here I build archival evidence of a trope in Bollywood cinema in which women face trial by fire. This trope can be most obviously traced to a major episode in the traditional mythology of Sita, from an ancient epic called the Ramayana. Sita, the wife of the divine king Ram, is abducted by the ten-headed king of Sri Lanka, Ravan. Ram goes to war with Ravan and rescues her. Upon returning to his kingdom, rumors begin to disperse amongst Ram's subjects that the queen had lived in the house of another man: her abductor, Ravan. This led to questions about Sita's morality and Ram's judgment in taking her back as his wife. To prove Sita's purity to his subjects, Ram asks her to submit to a trial by fire. She must walk through a blazing flame to show that her character is unsullied. Sita passes the trial, but in indignation for this humiliation she refuses to remain as Ram's queen after proving her purity, and instead returns to her divine mother, the Earth.

This famous tale, with its proto-feminist ending, is known throughout India. In the story, fire (the element presided over by the god Agni) represents abstract concepts of purity and devotion and renders these concepts feminine. Agni Agonies gathers together the cinematic repercussions of this symbolism using appropriated footage and performative interventions. A range of scenes are represented, including the Sita tale, but also the drama of trapped brides, the heroism of brave sisters, the fear of scorned wives, the hilarity of careless cooks, and the vengeance of survivors.

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