Deepa Mehta films are the films based on the realities of life. While many don’t understand the traditional familial constructs of an Indian family, the complexities of social and relational standing within them are universal. In talking about Mehta’s work, my focus is on the element trilogy: the films Earth, Fire, and Water. I’ll also be talking about them in the order in which I’ve seen them.
Earth follows the story of Lenny (Maia Sethna), a young girl with polio and her view of her world in 1947 Lahore. This was just before India was partitioned and during a time of great national strife. Lenny is from a well to do Parsi family who remain in their home hoping to keep neutral in the midst of the imminent divisions of their village. While she is cared for and loved by her parents Bunty (Kitu Gidwani) and Rustom (Arif Zakaria), Shanta (Nandita Das) is her nanny, who attends to her daily. Shanta and Lenny often congregate at the park with Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim friends of the neighborhood. Of the men in the group, Ice-Candy Man (Aamir Khan) and Hassan (Rahul Khanna) are both in love with Shanta. However, Shanta holds a great love for Hassan that leads to tensions and tragedy for the love triangle as the religious tensions mount.
This film is infused with a brown and reddish tinged lens, although earthy (pardon the pun) denotes blood and the organic nature of the village. Mehta’s long time DP Giles Nuttgens does a superb job, as he always does on her films, but here the textures encapsulate a people who have coexisted instinctually and are then brutally torn apart by circumstances beyond their control. The streets might not literally run red with blood, but the intensity of the colours here make it feel like they do.
Lenny becomes a symbol of positivity and innocence looking on as friends become enemies and friendships are tested. Her loyalty is not to a religion, but to the ties that have seen her grow despite her affliction. At one point at the dinner table her family hosts a British man who had made India his home. The conversation takes a dark turn as the Sikh man in the group says, “What will happen to us?”
The Briton responds with fury as if scolding a child. The Sikh responds with, “We will settle our differences ourselves.”
To lighten the mood, Rustom thanks the English for the roads and the language they have been given.
“Let’s not forget the syphilis,” responds the Sikh.
It’s a scene that although rife with politics is at the heart of the film. While all this is happening, Lenny is under the table with her friend listening with attentive big eyes. In an instant spark, landscape and people will change, but the eyes of a child will only see truth beyond the chaos.
In Fire, Mehta goes from a nation divided to a family struggling to overcome the ties that bind them. Sita (Nandita Das) is recently married to Jatin (Javed Jaffrey), but Jatin still sees his mistress Julie (Alice Poon) on the side. They live with Jatin’s brother, Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi). Also in the household is Jatin and Ashok’s invalid mother, (Kushal Rekhi) and Mundu (Ranjit Chowdhry) the house servant.
Ashok devoutly follows a local preacher aka a Swamiji who extolls the virtues of suppressing desire and because of this Ashok has not had relations with his wife for thirteen years. Young Sita brings an air of new thoughts of independence and through that Radha and her form a strong bond. Eventually their friendship becomes romantic as they both seek solace in each other beyond marriages without love or desire.
Jatin and Ashok are also victims of their own circumstances. It is revealed that Jatin has married Sita solely because his family nagged him to marry. Ashok wants to be pure and virtuous at the expense of his marriage.
What got me the most about Fire was Mehta’s handling of the claustrophobic conditions that families can find themselves in. While supporting each other in traditional forms the members of this family strain under the denial of their natures. In some families it is taboo to speak up or to go against what has always been. Yet while the crisis here is one that breaks the family apart, it opens up doors to new views about love and devotion. It questions what is truly important to an individual versus the family that can hold it back.
Water deals with family members that are cast away, particularly widowed women. The film takes place in 1938 when India was under colonial rule. Widows were banished from regular society. Their choices were to die with their husbands, or marry their husband’s brother, or live their lives in poverty while worshipping God. Child marriage was also practiced then.
The story focuses on the life Chuyia (Sarala Kariyaswasam), a recently widowed seven-year old girl. Her father sends her off to live in an ashram for Hindu widows. She is expected to live there for the rest of her life. Madhumati, a seventy-year old rude bully of a woman, runs the ashram. Her friend is a pimp named Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav) who helps her prostitute out the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Chuyia and Kalyani become fast friends and confide in each other.
Kalyani falls in love with Narayan (John Abraham), a young man who has been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. The affair is secret, but they make plans to marry (although legal, it is considered taboo for a widow to marry). Needless to say, things go awry and not everything goes as planned.
Although the topics of this film are heavy, the way Mehta intertwines her stories with everyday life scenes make them relatable. Chuyia’s exuberance is the light of the film and the uplifting visual of her playing and being a child despite the role that’s been dealt to her is what anchors Water. Natural lighting infuses Water’s message of hope and resilience. The Ganges river flows like a life giving vein of the country.
The subject of how widowed women are treated is so controversial in India that the production of Water had to be moved to Sri Lanka. Deepa Mehta’s passion for film is heightened by her courage to tackle the issues that many still refuse to speak about. Her films are inspirational because of both of their genuine grandness and unpretentious artful way in which she renders her tales.
For more info and Deepa Mehta films do check out Heaven on Earth: The Films of Deepa Mehta “Programmer’s Essay
Renowned for such films as Fire, Earth, Water, and her epic adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Deepa Mehta receives a TIFF Cinematheque salute with this retrospective.”