Thursday, May 6, 2010

Fire, Earth and Water

Chuyia is a vivacious little girl, she is not a teenager yet, she is the kind of little girl that asks a million questions and is curious about everything. We all know a little girl like her, except probably not exactly like her. Little Chuyia, despite her young age, has been a wife to an older and sickly man and is now also a widow. “Water”, is the third film in a trilogy by director Deepa Mehta, it chronicles the plight of widows in India during the time of Mohandas Gandhi’s struggle against the British in 1938. Deepa Mehta resides in Canada but was born and raised in India. Her films help spark conversations and challenge blind Indian traditions. Mehta is quoted as saying, “I seriously wanted to break the stereotypes of India, the 'exotic' India of the Raj and the princes and the mysticism. Exotic India doesn't really exist" (Kirkland). Her films have won her international acclaim; “Water” was nominated in 2007 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Some of her other films such as “Sam and Me” received awards at the Cannes Film Festival and “Fire” the second movie in her trilogy has been awarded over 14 international awards. While her films are loved internationally, Mehta’s films have sparked violent controversy in India, where her stories are set and the films are shot. Mehta is constantly having to face criticism in India, her latest film Cooking with Stella was harshly received in an article in The Times of India by Rashmee Roshan, just one of the latest critics of Mehta (Roshan). Whenever she shines a light on the problems of India or women in India it seems she is branded a traitor who has forsaken her native India for her new home in Canada

Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar, India in 1949; her father was a film distributor and theater owner. Mehta received her bachelors and masters degree in philosophy from the University of New Delhi. Initially she did not want to pursue a career in film; she got started in film when she took a part time job at a place called the Cinematic Workshop, while she planned to do her PhD dissertation. Slowly Mehta learned the different steps in film making from sound production to camera work and editing; eventually she made her own documentary and in the process discovered how much she loved it (Hanggi). While at the University of New Delhi she met her husband, Canadian filmmaker and producer Paul Saltzman; the couple immigrated to Canada but had a short-lived marriage. Mehta began her career as a screenwriter for children films and producing documentaries until in 1991 she produced and directed her first feature film Sam and Me. Following the success of Sam and Me Mehta went on to guest direct two episodes for a George Lucas project, Young Indian Jones. During the 90’s Mehta went on to produce and direct more feature films that garnered critical acclaim. During this period Mehta began work on her trilogy Fire, Earth and Water that focus on exposing some of the ridge norms that exist in India. Mehta’s films are always influenced by her experiences as an Indian woman, her films tend to closely mirror Mehta’s struggle with national pride and her belief systems that run contrary to many oppressive Indian traditions.

Water, is the third film in Mehta’s film trilogy, released in 2005. This film is set against the backdrop of political upheaval in India in 1938 during Gandhi's struggle against British colonialism. It focuses on the practice of placing widows in “widow ashrams”, temples or poor houses where widows are marginalized from the rest of society. Mehta tells the story of the widows by following a child widow, Chuyia, which is placed in an ashram when her elderly and sickly husband passes away. Kalyani is a beautiful widow living the ashram and the head of the ashram is pimping her out but she takes to caring for Chuyia. Kalyani meets a handsome young man, Narayan, from a wealthy family who, against his family’s approval, is a follower of Gandhi's movement that includes new rights for women (such as enabling widows to remarry). The story questions if Kalyani will be able to escape the ashram and marry Narayan and what will happen to Chuyia if she does. Is Chuyia doomed to spend the rest of her life in the ashram and take Kalyani’s place of being pimped for funds to maintain the ashram?

Placing widows in ashrams is still practiced to this day; as such Mehta’s film was not popular in India. Many saw it as a criticism of their religious text; thousands of people led by various religious groups protested the film and violence erupted during the filming. The set for the film was destroyed and burned down and the project was stopped amidst the protest and violence surrounding the film. Mehta did not let her vision about this film change; she had a story to tell and knew how she wanted to tell it. Mehta picked up production of the film a few years later but shot the film in Sri Lanka in order to tell the story how she envisioned. When asked if she ever considered abandoning the project after the fundamentalist violence Mehta responded by saying, “Not even for a second. I just knew it had to happen at the right time, a time when I no longer had anger about what had happened, particularly with a story this fragile. My anger would have distorted the film and changed the story I wanted to tell” (reverseshot).

Work Cited

Kirkland, Paul. "Deepa's values are down to Earth." Toronto Sun 25 Sept. 1999.

Roshan, Rashmee . "An expat idea of India: damn lies". The Times of India. April 18, 2010 .

Hanggi, Katy . "Deepa Mehta". English Emory. February 2010 .

Catsoulis, Jeannette. "Deepa Mehta: An Interview". Reverse Shot. Spring 2006 .

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