Fire, Earth, Water

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Water movie posterFire(1996), Earth(1998), and Water(2005) are three films by Deepa Mehta. They are referred to as a trilogy, but actually don't share characters or storylines, just themes and a few actors. All three of them focus on taboo subjects in Indian society, and specifically on the ways in which women get fucked over in India. These are beautifully shot and well-acted movies, dealing with interesting, important subjects. They're also incredibly hard to watch and don't leave as much room for hope or redemption as the viewer would like.

The first of the films, "Fire," is set in modern-day New Dehli and deals with the blossoming of a love affair between two sisters-in-law, Sita and Radha. Both Sita and Radha are in bad marriages, treated poorly by their husbands. Over the course of the film, young, newly-married Sita draws Radha out of the shell of a life she has created in her lengthy unfufilling marriage, and the two fall in love. This is a particularly taboo subject for an Indian film, as homosexuality is looked down upon to the point of not being acknowledged in Indian culture (one of the film's characters points out that there is no word in their language for what Sita and Radha are to each other). Taking on the subjects of lesbian relationships and how poorly Indian wives can be treated, Mehta's objectives in this film are bold, and they were met with a lot of resistance in India and Pakistan, where the film was banned for being anti-religious.

The second film, "Earth," is not much less controversial than the first, and it's much sadder. It takes place in 1947, as the British are leaving India, after dividing it arbitrarily into two countries (now India and Pakistan). The story centers around a little Parsee girl, Lenny, her nanny, Shanta, a Hindu woman, and the group of men attempting to court Shanta. The men are Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh. As the story unfolds, ethnic/religious tensions grow, as do potential romances between Shanta and two of her suitors, both Muslim. I won't give away the ending, but suffice it to say that it's heartbreaking.

The final movie, which is in theaters currently, is "Water." Water is set in mid-1930s India, and it tells the story of women living in a Brahmin widows colony. It begins with a child bride who is widowed at seven and sent to live at the colony, then details her relationships with the women who already live there. The film is very critical of the cloistering of widows, and again it ends tragically.

All three of these films take a lot out of you. They are hard to watch, heartbreaking, and infuriating. The male characters are nearly all bad, and the female characters are nearly all in terrible situations. It's not light viewing. Still, it's worth doing, both because of the amazing cinematography and the ruthless way in which Mehta has the nerve to look at these taboo subjects.

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Yay! Someone in the blogosphere who saw this movie! Water, that is. I haven't seen the other two yet. I saw Water with my mother in law, and I even wrote a post about it. http://yummywc.blogspot.com/2006/05/much-more-disturbing.html My husband is of Indian decent, born in Canada, his parents from South America, so pretty far removed from living in India. I remember once when I lived in San Francisco, my gay roommate had a gay Indian friend, and my mother-in-law (to be, since my husband and I weren't married yet) said, no, he couldn't be gay, because no Indians are gay. Doesn't happen. Then she met him, and she had to change her mind, because, Oh, what a swishy gay man he was. :) But to this day, she says gay men are fine, but she does cannot accept lesbians. WTF? Guess I shan't be seeing Fire with her, huh? So glad I found your blog. :)

Thanks for this. I'm still processing them, so my thoughts are jumbled. The films all affected me on a very visceral level, but in different ways, and they left me wanting to learn more about the history behind the stories. But damn, they were depressing--that isn't a criticism, just a fact. She gives the viewer no release or happy spin--though some of the open-endedness allows the viewer to cling to feeble hope that even more horrors haven't occurred. (I'm curious about how you interpreted the end of "Fire", but we can discuss it IRL, so as not to spoil it for other folks. There's also an event in "Earth"--the scene with the bag--that I want to discuss with you--namely who was responsible.) But I digress . . . With Mehta's work, there is no "it's only a movie", available to allow one to detatch, as the attrocities build. I've rarely felt such dumb horror while watching a film--and there were moments in each where I just wanted to cry out or shut it off. There's also, no sense of progress in the underlying indignities, or--in the case of "Earth"--painful parallels to what has happened in other countries and what is now happening in Iraq. Finally, for me, there was a sense of powerlessness to change a damned thing and also guilt that I was moaning about how sad and affected I was, and all I had to do was watch a fucking film. It was a real perspective check. (I was still up til the wee hours, though, as images burned into my brain would not let me rest easy.) These movies are not entertainment, but they are engaging and powerful.The themes are relevant and the outcomes frustrating, as you envision how easily these people's lives could not have sucked, had circumstances been different.

More on the "I only had to watch" thing . . . I think the reason why it was so difficult was because there are so many parallels to what we face as women today. So, it was like constant triggering and connecting with the subject matter. It wasn't passive viewing by any stretch.

I intend to see these movies, if only because I've never seen a movie in which lesbianism wasn't totally fuckin' hot.

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