When I began brainstorming selections for this series, including a representative sample from the work of Indian-born Canadian film director Deepa Mehta was necessary. Picking something from her elements trilogy seemed reasonable shorthand, as they are a landmark effort and collect distinctly female perspectives on lesbianism, national identity, religious affiliation, arranged marriages, generational differences, and shifting gender norms in 20th century India.
Choosing one film to speak for its collective whole proved more challenging. For many, 1996’s Fire established Mehta’s career. As many credit it as being the first Indian feature about lesbianism, it also stirred up controversy, particularly from conservative political organizations. Notably, some of these groups were run by women who believed the film’s lesbian protagonists, who are married into the same family, were dishonorable misrepresentations of “typical” Hindu women. While I recognize Fire as a promising feature of historical and cultural significance, Mehta’s leaden script tells the emotions actors are supposed to show and make abstract. The aims are admirable, but people’s interactions with one another tend to contain layers of meaning, wherein words and intent are negotiable and what is said often resides between a partial truth and a deeper reality people have difficulty articulating.
This contrasts with Mehta’s bewitching Water, which closed the trilogy in 2005. It was distributed through Fox Searchlight in the states and garnered Mehta the first Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination for her country that wasn’t in French. Unlike Fire, which is an English-language production, Water is in Hindi. Though there are moments where characters underline their country’s shifting values too bluntly, a language barrier may allow for some ambiguity. Overall, Mehta’s maturing ear for dialogue benefits the cast’s talents. In addition, art director Sumant Jayakrishnan sumptuous production design and A.R. Rahman’s score deepen reception of the film.
I would also imagine the decision to employ Hindi speaks to what era in which the film takes place Fire is set in present-day India. Water considers life in a widow’s ashram in 1938, as the teachings of revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi empowered citizens to resist England’s colonial stronghold and upend the country’s traditions. And though we don’t see it, I wouldn’t be surprised if some members in widows’ ashrams partake of their Sapphic desires. I don’t want to make a Western-centric comparison to nuns, a group with historically documented lesbian activity, but their religious devotion and cloistered life may bring other passions to bear.
While Mehta doesn’t opine about lesbianism in the ashram, she does contemplate how living in one would be experienced from a child’s perspective. The film in effect has two protagonists. Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam) arrives at the ashram as an eight year old, having never met the dead husband to whom her family betrothed. She befriends Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a young woman who was brought to the ashram at roughly the same age and, as a result, is illiterate and severely limited in her ability to function in the outside world. The ashram is run by Madhumati (Manorama), an unsympathetically rendered elderly woman who, with the help of transvestite pimp Gulabi (Raghubir Yadav) prostitutes widows like Kalyani out to interested parties. Kalyani falls in love with Narayan (John Abraham), a gentry class law student who proselytizes the teachings of Ghandi and doesn’t realize the woman he is enamored with was once received by his father.
Though Water was lauded by many American critics, some detractors charged Mehta with Orientalism in her depictions of the ashram. I would also argue that Madhumati is two-dimensional and her colleague Gulabi, while a bit more likable, seems something of a transphobic manifestation. Furthermore, the film met considerable right-wing protest and temporarily shut down production. In order to complete the film, Mehta had to recast it, provide a different working title, and use Sri Lanka to double for India in some scenes.
The opposition Mehta faces by radical political factions, some run by fundamentalist women, informs her work. As a result, I’d argue that Water is ultimately a disquieting film. I believe her representation of life in an ashram is far more complicated than a baseline critique against its crippling impact on women and girls. She judiciously represents the community’s shared intimacies. Chuyia and Kalyani have something of a mother-daughter bond with older widow Shakuntala (Seema Biswas). Mehta also represents some of the widows, particularly in the principle cast, as having conflicting opinions about their involvement with the ashram and their homeland’s shifting ideologies.
However, I find it unfortunate that men are the active participants in social revolution, with women and girls swept up by the changing tides. Gender inequality in social justice movements and many women’s coerced allegiance with them are felt by Mehta. The most poignant evidence of this is Kalyani’s decision to drown after discovering her connection to Narayan’s father. While shame and melancholy may motivate her suicide, I also think an angry realization that marriage to an upper-middle-class man who’ll get to set his country’s political agenda without her input weighs heavily on her actions.
Thus, Shakuntala’s decision to flee the ashram with Chuyia following Kalyani’s death hardly feels like cathartic resolution. The film ends with Shakuntala making a rash decision to force her charge onto Narayan at a crowded train station, hoping that he’ll bring her in contact with Gandhi. She’s left with little evidence that the future will change drastically for Chuyia as she watches her disappear from view. As generations of women and girls who follow Chuyia and Mehta can attest, investing your trust in other people’s politics do little to insure personal or institutional well-being. They may promise answers, but they are usually to questions they can’t actually resolve.