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Water: Deepa Mehta Completes Her “Elements” Trilogy

Special for The Digital Filmmaker
by Jan Lisa Huttner

Water, the third part of Deepa Mehta’s “Elements” trilogy, premiered at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival after years of disappointment and delay, and is finally being released in the USA this spring. The attempt to film Water in India touched off waves of protests by supporters of Hindutva (Hindu cultural nationalism). When the original production in the holy city of Benares was shut down in 1999, four years passed before Mehta was able to resume filming in Sri Lanka. Audiences everywhere are now indebted to Mehta for her perseverance; Water is a luminous film, a triumphant tribute to Mehta’s faith in humanity despite all the reasons for despair.

Deepa Mehta first achieved international prominence with the release of Fire in 1996. Newlyweds Jatin and Sita are both from proper middle-class families. They’re expected to find satisfaction in their arranged marriage, but neither of them can. Ignored by her husband, the bride slowly develops a passionate interest in her sister-in-law Radha. Jatin’s brother Ashok is a religious man and Sita assumes that Radha is equally devout, but as the two women get to know each other, Sita realizes that Radha’s spirit has been stifled by Ashok’s ritualistic self-abnegation.

The release of Fire sent shock-waves throughout India where a lesbian relationship between two characters named after Hindu goddesses was perceived as a deliberate affront by fundamentalists. But Mehta’s elegant storytelling skills and the powerfully restrained performances of her two lead actresses (Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das) were widely acclaimed in the West, and Fire received numerous film festival awards.

Two years later, Mehta released Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s autobiographical novel Cracking India. Unlike Fire which is set in the vague present, Earth is set at a specific point in historical time: the moment right before British rule ended in 1947, prompting India and Pakistan to declare themselves separate countries.

Earth’s main character is Lenny Sethna (Maia Sethna), the daughter of a prominent Parsee family living in the cosmopolitan city of Lahore. Lenny has been born into a very comfortable life; Hindus, Moslems, and Sikhs all dine together as friends at her parents’ gracious table. But soon political disagreements intrude on her world, and Lenny watches in confusion as the adult relationships around her begin to fragment. Atrocities on all sides lead to escalating violence and inevitable tragedy.

Mehta is careful to show the unfolding horror through Lenny’s innocent eyes, and told from a child’s perspective the story of this one specific ethnic conflict achieves heart-breaking universality.

With Water, Mehta once again tells a deeply personal story set in a moment of great historical change. This time the year is 1938, and Gandhi is just beginning to mobilize the crowds that will inevitably drive the British out of India a decade later. But eight year old Chuyia (Sarala) knows nothing about any of this; she is a child beset by her own miseries. Married to a man she barely knew, Chuyia is already a widow. According to custom, her father and her mother-in-law bring her to an ashram in Benares (the holy city on the Ganges River now called Varanasi), where she is expected to renounce the world and spend the rest of her life in mourning.

For the other women in the ashram, Chuyia is an immediately destabilizing force. As they look at her, they see the children they once were, and they also see the children they will never have. Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), who has devoted herself to religious rituals for years, begins to ache with long-buried maternal longings. The more she tries to change Chuyia, channeling her youthful energy into “appropriate” behavior, the more Shakuntala comes to question her own choices. Does she really want Chuyia to live the same life of sacrifice and self-suppression?

The three chapters of the trilogy, which Mehta both wrote and directed, share common concerns. Like Radha in Fire, Shakuntala is deeply disturbed by watching a vibrant youngster rapidly age under the weight of tradition. Like Lenny in Earth, Chuyia becomes the unwitting facilitator of a doomed romance. But the mood of each film is set by a distinct palette keyed to its title: the glowing the reds and oranges of passion in Fire, the dusty browns and grays of civil war in Earth, and the bleached white of religious asceticism in Water. When the widows celebrate the spring festival of Holi by throwing powdered dye on Chuyia’s sari, the burst of color is almost painful.

Deepa Mehta has created unforgettable women in the course of her distinguished career. Her main characters (Lenny, Radha, and Shakuntala) all start out obedient, but their reservoirs of inner strength inspire us.

"The trilogy is about elements on one level that nurture and destroy us. They are very tangible elements. Fire is about the politics of sexuality, Earth is about the politics of nationalism and Water is about the politics of religion."

Deepa Mehta

Fire (1996) and Earth (1998) are both available on DVD

For more information, read Devyani Saltzman’s firsthand account.

Deepa Mehta (right) with her daughter Devyani Saltzman.
Photo courtesy of Newmarket Press.

Jan Lisa Huttner is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples. In addition to freelance work for a variety of print and online publications, Jan writes regular columns for the JUF News, Chicago's Jewish community monthly, and Chicago Woman, a bi-monthly published by The Woman's Newspapers. She is an active member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Illinois Woman's Press Association.


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