Why has “water” evaporated? The controversy over Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta
by Bridget Kulla Off Our Backs, Mar/Apr 2002
Deepa Mehta’s intended film trilogy is stalled. With production halted and only two of the three films completed, the future of Mehta’s project remains in question. As Mehta releases a new movie, we are again reminded of the fate of her most famous endeavor. Controversy is nothing new for this Indian born filmmaker, but at last her voice has been forcefully silenced. Water, the final installment of Mehta’s intended trilogy, following 1996’s Fire and 1999’s Earth, has literally been torn apart by angry and threatening protesters. Why should this talented filmmaker’s work remain incomplete? What is so threatening about her films to warrant such violence? And why should women care? fire To understand the tide of controversy that finally seems to have drowned Water, we need to start at the other end of the elemental spectrum. Fire, the first installment of Mehta’s film project, opened in 1996 to both critical acclaim and violent reactions. This proved to be an indication of obstacles to come. Fire centers around two middle class sisters-in-law. Sita (Nandita Das), through an arranged marriage, comes to live with her new husband and his family. She is quick to discover that her husband cares more for his Chinese girlfriend than for her. Radha (Shabana Azmi) is Sita’s long– suffering sister-in-law. Due to a personal spiritual quest, Radha’s husband has remained celibate for 13 years. These two rejected wives find the comfort and love that is missing in their marriages with each other, and soon begin a love affair. Reaction to Fire, a compelling and thought-provoking film, often turned violent. Theaters showing the film were burned to the ground. Mehta was escorted to showings by armed police guards, fearing for her life. For a time the Indian government banned the film altogether. Opponents rejected the homosexuality portrayed in the film, claiming it degraded Indian culture. Interestingly enough, homosexuality is something not often discussed openly in India; in fact, as Sita points out in the film, there is not even a word in an Indian language to describe Sita and Radha’s relationship. Mehta has adamantly defended her work, even fighting in Indian courts to permit the viewing of it. She emphasizes that those who focus on the lesbian content of the film are missing the larger picture. “The question is not whether one chooses to engage in homosexual or heterosexual relationships. The question is the necessity to choose a life of dignity and self-fulfillment.” And indeed the movie is more about repression than homosexuality. Fire does an excellent job in demonstrating the various ways in which patriarchal structures and the ideas of “duty” that they uphold repress both men and women. Mehta notes, “Every society or traditional value, whether in the east or the west, has an incredible impact on human behavior. So everybody in Fire-the women, the men-confront these problems.” Earth Unperturbed by the violence and legal struggle that surrounded the first film of the trilogy, in 1999 Mehta released Earth. Earth is based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s powerful semiautobiographical novel, Cracking India, about the violence women faced during the 1947 division of India into the two nations of Pakistan and India. Told through the eyes of an eight-year old girl, Earth is often shocking in its portrayals of the upheavals of Partition [Pakistan’s separation from India as a country]. Mehta shows how Partition divided a people as well as the land, with women becoming the targets for the hatred that was produced. The film’s subject matter-the victimization and violence towards women during the forging of a new nation-is one that is rarely addressed on a popular level. Earth also saw its share of controversy, with some Hindu extremists denouncing the film and demanding that the government ban it. Unlike its predecessor, however, reactions to Earth remained nonviolent and the film was not censored. In Earth, Mehta still highlights important social issues concerning women, but she shifts her focus a bit. “Not only did it seem imperative to show what the Partition did to innocent people, but somehow, in doing so, we hoped to understand why war is waged and why friends turn enemies, and why battles are invariably fought on women’s bodies.” Water With much critical acclaim for Fire and Earth, Mehta was eager to begin work on Water. Water is a period piece written by Mehta. Set in India during the 1930s, it tells the story of impoverished child widows, abandoned by their families and forced into prostitution. Sadly, this is a very real problem in India, where many young girls are forced into arranged marriages with men much older than they are. During the 1930s, when this film is set, there were an estimated 35 million Indian widows. While the situation has improved, today there are still approximately 16,000 West Bengali widows living as beggars in the city of Vrindavan alone. Mehta has said of her trilogy, “Fire was about the politics of sexuality… Earth is about the politics of nationalism and Water about the politics of religion.” But Mehta’s politics turned out to be more than some could stand to hear. Filming was planned to begin in January 2000 in the Indian holy city of Varanasi. Mehta had received approval from the government, including a script review, and was okayed to begin production. On the first day of filming, around 2,000 protesters surrounded the set. Claiming that the script defamed Hinduism and India, some opponents of the film tore apart the set and burned it. The local government retracted their initial approval for filming after weeks of negotiation with Mehta and her crew. Other Indian states offered Mehta rights to film there, but Mehta insisted the film be made in Varanasi, where the poverty of widows is notoriously bad. Disheartened, Mehta maintained that she would finish the film. Now, more than two years later, Water remains incomplete with no public plans to finish the project In the meantime, Mehta has recently released a new movie entitled Bollywood Hollywood, described as “out-and-out commercial” and “light and fun.” This film takes place in Canada and was released in December. Hoping for the long-anticipated Water, one has to be a little disappointed at Mehta’s change of direction. Why did Mehta make this shift away from socially relevant films? Did the patriarchal attacks on her trilogy at last prove too much for her? Has she decided to drop the politics she championed in Fire and Earth, and hoped for with Water? Whatever direction Mehta may be moving in her career, it is important to publicize the outrageous censorship that silenced her. What makes Mehta’s films controversial is that they question and expose societal structures and historical events that have been violent and repressive towards women. Film, to a greater extent than many other public mediums, has the potential to reach a diverse international audience. It is important to recognize this censorship as an act of patriarchal control over women’s art. It is also essential to remember that it is often easier to locate and condemn patriarchal injustices from a distance. In what ways are similar scenes being played out in our own country, our own lives? How are we being censored? We must recognize and condemn everyday acts of injustice, from speaking out against sexist comments to leaving an abusive relationship. In the meantime, we wish Deepa Mehta the best of luck and look forward to someday enjoying the final film of her trilogy.