Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy comprised of three films Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2006). The last two were created in collaboration with Bapsi Sidhwa, a Pakistani American novelist who wrote Ice Candy Man (the book on which Fire is based), and Water: A Novel, based on Deepa Mehta’s movie. The feminist undertones in the films are overt and blatant. An alumna of Lady Shri Ram College for Women, Mehta moved to Canada and challenged the portrayal of the Indian woman in mainstream Bollywood movies.
The movies incited controversy: Fire, which challenged heteronormativity was perceived as an attack on Hindu culture and the institution of marriage. The criticism faced by the filmmaker was so fierce that eventually, Water, a film about the lived realities of vidhwas at Varanasi ashrams, was shot in Sri Lanka rather than India. Even within the feminist fold, Mehta faced criticism. Madhu Kishwar, then editor of Manushi accused Mehta of doing a disservice to women in India by portraying Radha and Sita’s bond as a lesbian relationship, and claiming that homosexuality was acceptable in India as long as it remained a private affair. Other critics pointed out that the characters in her films confirmed Orientalist stereotypes by exoticizing Indian women and customs in Water. Further, Mehta’s Fire was accused of reducing patriarchy to the denial of female sexuality.
However, in her analysis, researcher Subeshini Moodley found that diasporic film directors like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta subvert the mainstream concept of Indian women, whose depiction in their movies involves the reclamation of their bodies and sexual identities. The Trilogy is also an important contribution to postcolonial feminism- women of colour telling stories of women of their kind (Moodley, 2011).
The criticism of Orientalisation requires a deeper analysis: internalised misogyny oftentimes blinds women to the systematic nature of patriarchy, rendering them silently complicit in the process. A denial of the oppression and suppression faced by women of colour by men of colour draws a curtain across a host of abuses, only veiling the problem, not solving it. Further, in her book Chup: Breaking the Silence about India’s Women (2018), social scientist Deepa Narayan explored how Indian culture indoctrinates girls from a very young age to deny the very existence of their bodies in their homes and their communities (if the body doesn’t exist, it can’t be wronged). Gendered indoctrination of this kind is reinforced by the society daily, whether through expectations from ‘good’ women, news about what happens to ‘bad’ women (read: rape), and the consequent victim-blaming. It renders women invisible and steals them of their personhood. Viewed from this lens, the suppression of women on the Indian subcontinent is pervasive, similar to yet not necessarily identical with, the subjugation of women in different parts of the world. Different parts of the world have their own, nuanced forms of patriarchy. These differences require an acknowledgement.
Deepa Mehta’s filmography fills an important gap in mainstream cinema dominated by men. These stories have to be heard. The portrayal of the women’s stories is usually not a revelation to women but just a confirmation of hushed stories they heard from their foremothers ̶ to serve as an example of what not to do ̶ go out after dark, stay out late. Such negative reinforcements coupled with silence in the mainstream media on the endemic culture of violence against women render it invisible and seem normal. So when Shanta, the beautiful Hindu ayah portrayed by Nandita Das in Earth, is dragged away by a mob in the partition riots in Lahore after being deceived by a jilted lover, the viewer realises that there were more than just communal forces at play.
Any identity marker for a female individual, coupled with the reality of being a woman, renders her doubly oppressed. This was an act of gender violence. When looking at the composition of mobs and mob culture in South Asia, typically composed of males, it is hard to disassociate it with an inherently violent form of masculinity. In the movie, the mob is a metaphor for the forces of patriarchy. As we live out our metaphors, in reality, the idea of male dominance is reflected like a mirror image. The fact that these incidents occurred, in reel and real life, reveals the fact that the world is a reflection of the thought in male (and complicit female) minds: male dominance is a lived reality for women because of the environment created by upholders of patriarchy in homes, neighbourhoods, and communities.
This complicity has been theorised as a patriarchal bargain– a process whereby a woman oppressed by patriarchy suppresses other women to demonstrate her authority under a patriarchal system. The stories my grandmother told me about the partition about the brutalisation of women ̶ paraded naked on the streets, having their chests sliced off, raped, put in sacks ̶ are not a communal issue. It is a women’s issue. Violence against the bodies of women in such a systematic manner as depicted in the movie opens the viewer’s eyes to the fact that these women were not statistics in a newspaper article but humans who lived, breathed, loved, dreamed, and worked. They were multifaceted individuals with hopes and aspirations, like Shanta.
However, it was their identity as women, albeit coupled with their membership of a particular community, which led to their brutal treatment. As Urvashi Butalia points out, the partition historiography lacked a human dimension of history. It is important to understand that at the end of the day, with all our complex systems, people matter. What people think, do, and how they act, matter. Rendering women like Radha, Sita, Chuiyya, and Shanta names, faces, and lives on the screen gives us an insight into the protean nature of Brahmanical patriarchy which underscored the differing contexts from 1938 in Water, 1947 in Earth and contemporary India in Fire. We can’t smash the patriarchy by locking ourselves away in ivory towers. We have to force ourselves to go out and make small changes in our own ways and raise our voices, as Deepa Mehta through with her movies.
Feminist filmmaking contributes to bringing about the realisation that the fate that befell ‘fallen’ women who stepped out of line with patriarchal norms was not an exception or aberration but is as normal as the air we breathe. Sharing these stories privately only adds to the stigma, like teaching young girls to hide sanitary napkins and young women to write off their assaults as chhera-chheri. Watching these women on the big screen, sans the male lens filtering and judging ‘good woman’ and ‘bad woman’, itself is an empowering action.
Mainstream Bollywood movies generally reserve most of the screen time for male protagonists with female leads occupying a secondary role; incidental references to their lives outside a romantic relationship are mainly to bolster the status of the male lead. Such fantastical movies are nothing less than optical illusions. Accepting them as depictions of real-life is detrimental to society as a whole. Although exorcising Hindi cinema of these tendencies cannot be achieved overnight, taking steps in the right direction through courageous filmmaking is a start.
To borrow Gerda Lerner’s analogy, men and women live on a stage and act out assigned roles that are equal in importance. However, the stage is “conceived, painted, defined by men. Men have written the play, have directed the show, interpreted the meanings of the action. They have assigned themselves the most interesting, most heroic parts, giving women the supporting roles… It takes considerable time for the women to understand that getting “equal” parts will not make them equal, as long as the script, the props, the stage setting, and the direction are firmly held by men.”