Saturday, 19 April 2014

Sexuality, Nationalism, and Religion in Deepa Mehta’s ELEMENTS Trilogy

From 1996-2005, the Toronto-based-Indian-born female filmmaker, Deepa Mehta, produced three films that have now become known as her Elements trilogy. The films, Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005), written and directed by Mehta, are all critically acclaimed as well as highly controversial. Her intent was to make three films that she would find meaningful in dealing with the politics of sexuality, the politics of nationalism, and the politics of religion, respectively. Despite the fact that the films deal with specific events in Indian history, and are thus set between 1938 and 1947, by producing them in a time when issues of citizenship and national identity are being publicly confronted, Mehta is able to present a new perspective on “past” issues. In fact, bringing these past events to the forefront at such a time employs them as reminders that these issues have long been in existence, even if they were not being addressed. The films challenge what it means to be Indian, and question the status and rights of Indian women. The bold storytelling Mehta takes on with this three part project must, I argue, be considered a form of feminist and social activism, and is thus worth serious attention for their willingness to consider issues of gender and citizenship. 
In a chapter on Globalization and Women, Valentine Moghadam points out that the interpretation of globalization as westernization was a major prompt of Fundamentalist groups which are very concerned with sustaining traditional ideologies about gender, among other things (45). This frame of thought has caused quite an uproar surrounding Mehta’s films. For instance, during the making of Water (a film about Hindi widows who are bound by religion to live lives of self-denial, starvation, and chastity), it took only two days of on-location shooting for fundamentalist groups to fight against the production hard enough to have it violently shut down by authorities. The film was subsequently shot in Sri Lanka. The reason fundamentalists are so enraged about the film is because it suggests that the sacred Hindi texts are being used as a guise for the society to mistreat women and strip them of their right to be full citizens, to the benefit of men who remain rich and powerful by the same laws.

In Earth, Mehta takes on the division of India, which created Pakistan and was the cause of much bloodshed. This film highlights the problematic nature of the idea of national identity and the issue of multiculturalism. Earth is bloated with debates about who belongs where based on religion, and about how the Indian people negotiate their “English” identity. Significantly, the political arguments and terrorist style violence are all led by men in the film, while the women are shown as lacking political voices, but also as being deeply emotionally affected by not knowing where they “belong”. The film therefore strives to portray the problematic social structures created by the concept of nationalism, especially in relation to gender. The concept of globalization finds its way into this discussion because it seems to have informed Mehta’s perspective in telling this story. If, as Scholtz suggests, modernization is one way to understand globalization, then it can be argued as being relevant to Mehta’s film, which is underlined with the idea that individualism and rationalism are lacking in the situation. The characters seem to possess these qualities before the division, but quickly revert to traditional ideas about nation and religion informing a group-identity once Britain puts independence on the table. 

Meanwhile, the earliest installment of the trilogy, Fire, demonstrates women’s dependency on their husbands, without whom they have no place in society. It was the first mainstream film to deal explicitly with homosexuality (specifically lesbianism), inspired by the feminist Indian writer Ismat Chughtai. Again, Mehta is challenging national policies by wondering why women must assimilate to patriarchal heterosexual ideologies in order to have rights in their country. Not surprisingly, this film was heavily protested in India as well for both its critical nature and its “deviance”.

Speaking Overall, Mehta’s films are especially interesting to analyze within the framework of globalization because of her own relationship to transnationalism. All three films deal explicitly with the contentious issue of belonging within a national framework, a subject Mehta cannot be unfamiliar with as a Canadian citizen for over 20 years. That she continues to make films that challenge the politics, and gender politics, of India affords her a distance from the subject that may make tackling these difficult issues easier, if not only for her access to Canadian government funding. And yet as an Indian woman, she is afforded a certain level of authority which allows her a privileged position from which to criticize. What she goes through to get these stories told is remarkable and for that will alone she must be commended.