In American films about a person rising above poverty, hardships are often shown as exceptions to life in America. In many Indian films, it is not startling to be poor or to be in the thrall of 2,000-year-old customs. It’s just life and these matters are taken for granted. The story goes from there. In Fire, Earth, and Water, Deepa Mehta brings us three excellent films that find beauty in the souls of its characters despite their conditions in life, but it is the foundation of those very conditions that she brings into question.
Mehta’s elemental trilogy begins with Fire (1996). Set in contemporary India, it explores controversial issues of gender, marriage, and sexuality, specifically lesbianism. At the centre is a beautiful young woman named Sita, who marries into a New Delhi family. Her marriage to Jatin is arranged and insisted upon by Ashok, her new brother-in-law, because the family needs children. Ashok’s own wife, Radha, can’t have children. Jatin, a modern kind of guy, goes along with the marriage, but flaunts his Chinese mistress. Ashok, depressed by his wife’s sterility, follows the teachings of a swami who teaches that sex is evil and promotes chastity. It isn’t long before the two wives are sharing their unhappiness and finding love and comfort in each other.
Due to its themes and because the main characters are named after two prominent Hindu Goddesses, Fire was greeted with tremendous hostility in India. The film only screened for about two weeks before being pulled from cinemas after several movie houses were damaged by protesters. Even with same-sex relations and gender variance represented through ritual, mythical narrative, and art within Hinduism since Vedic times, homosexuality remains taboo. The lesbian relationship might be the most obvious reason for the heated reactions, but Fire offers more food for reactionary thought. The beautifully shot, well-acted film is a powerful critique of the rigid norms of a patriarchal, post-colonial society that is oppressive to both sexes.
When the British decided to pull out of India in 1947, it left a country with no orderly way to deal with the rivalries between Hindus and Muslims, and the partition of India and Pakistan along religious lines led to bloodshed. Earth (1998) sees the tragedy through the eyes of a group of friends in Lahore, then in India, now in Pakistan.
Many Americans might not know that India and Pakistan were once one country and few could provide an explanation of the Partition, but Earth doesn’t require a knowledge of this history from its viewers. It tells you what you need to know via drama and romance.
The film sees much of the action through the eyes of Lenny, a little Parsee girl, whose Hindu nanny Shanta is admired by all the men in their circle of friends. There are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees, and even a Christian or two. Shanta slowly comes to love Hasan, a Muslim, but is also the object of affection of Dil, another Muslim. The friends meet in the park and sometimes the talk turns political. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs have lived side-by-side since time immemorial and the friends all agree that they are above hatreds based on religion. History proves otherwise. Earth questions any religion that does not have as a basic tenet for the tolerance of other religions, but also explores how hatred and jealousy find violent expression in religion.
Water (2005) is set in the 1938 and tells the story of Chuyia, whose husband has died. She is sent live out her days in an ashram for widows where her hair is cut off and she wears a white garment that marks her status. Chuyia is eight years old.
Chuyia fears the cruel headmistress and longs to return home, but at least she brings joy to the other widows and finds a friend in the beautiful Kalyani. She also finds an ally in Shakuntala, a wise and thoughtful woman who questions the foundations of the theory of widowhood. The answers are found in Hindu Holy Scriptures and religion forms the foundation of this movie, much like in Fire and Earth. Even in 1938, laws existed in India that gave widows the freedom to remarry, but as one character observes, “We do not always follow the law when it is inconvenient.”
Chuyia makes another friend, Narayan, a handsome and educated follower of Gandhi, and when she brings him together with Kalyani, they fall in love. These two won’t have a fairy tale wedding, but it does set up a hopeful ending. The romance is nice and all, but Shakuntala’s questioning of the underpinnings of her society are far more interesting.
Mehta struggled for years to make Water in the aftermath of Fire. The day filming began, 2,000 protesters stormed the ghats, destroying the main film set, burning and throwing it into the Ganges in protest of the film’s criticisms of Hindu rites. Mehta eventually gave up on making the film in India and shot it secretly in Sri Lanka. Mehta remains a controversial figure in India. Her films still have the power to offend and Mehta’s life has been repeatedly threatened.
Fire, Earth, and Water are intelligent, gentle, beautiful films that should not be missed.