Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Elements Trilogy

Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy consists of three extraordinary films, Fire (1996), Earth (1998), and Water (2005).

Fire is the first Indian film with an explicit depiction of homosexual relations, somehow managing to squeak through India’s censor board untouched. After a few weeks of screening before sold out audiences in November 1998, word got around, and homophobes, usually religiously affiliated, started storming and vandalizing the theaters. Beautifully, brilliantly, and powerfully illustrating the escalating electricity between two neglected wives, erupting into passionate female sexuality uncontrolled by men, the film provoked quite the ruckus, with all sorts of screaming, mayhem, arrests, trials, and noise before things settled down and people could watch it (still uncensored) without incident.

Earth: In 1947 Lahore, India a small crippled Parsee girl, Lenny, smashes a plate on the floor and asks her puzzled mother, "Can you break a country?"

The answer is yes, and this masterpiece unfolds the ensuing brutality through the eyes of Lenny, her beautiful nanny Shasta, and Shasta’s suitors, the Muslim “Ice Candy Man” Dil Navaz, the Hindu Hasan, and his Sikh friend. Lahore, in the Punjab, was an ancient cosmopolitan city where Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Parsee lived side by side in reasonable harmony until the partition, when unspeakable violence broke out, as it did in many other parts of India. Over a million people died in the sub-continent and perhaps 12 million people fled their homes.

Based on the autobiographical novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, the film explores how civil turmoil affects personal relationships. Politics brings out the worst in everyone; submerged resentments and trivial jealousies fuel shocking atrocities. The film’s ending is gut wrenching, profoundly disturbing, and utterly unforgettable.

Water captures conservative India's brutal oppression of women who are expected to set themselves on fire when their husbands die. Blamed for their husbands' deaths, surviving wives have to enter "widow houses," often forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive. Mehta chose the holy city of Varanasi as the location of her film because widow houses still exist there. By this time, however, her reputation for making extraordinary, powerful, and influential films was well established. Now, adversaries truly feared her work.

Before production could begin, two thousand protesters stormed the ghats, destroying the main film set, burning and throwing it into the holy river. Three main political/religious parties led the angry mob: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHU), and the Kashi Sanskrit Raksha Sangharsh Samiti (KSRSS). Considering themselves the guardians of the culture of Varanasi, protesters burned effigies of Mehta and sent her death threats. Following the protests, the Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee intervened and allowed the filming to continue. The filming was moved to West Bengal in Sri Lanka.

The Prime Minister intervened. Think about that. Hard to imagine in the United States, but this work is not about making money. This is the work of a soul that isn't for sale, serious cinema the likes of which almost never gets made in America. By this time, the world of cinema had discovered Mehta's work. Water received 10 awards and 11 nominations including the Oscar for Best Picture in a Foreign Language.

Deepa Mehta is a brilliant filmmaker who uses a feminist perspective and 20th century India to address the human condition applicable to everyone. Individuals outraged by the injustice of oppression, be it on account of gender, of race, or of status, will find her work a moving and compelling voice for the dignity of all people. Each film in the trilogy is a solid Five (out of Five) star gem. Bring the brain, the heart and the soul. You will need all three. Expect to be stirred in places Hollywood couldn't reach even if it had the courage to try.

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4 Comments:

Blogger The Navigator said...

I look forward to seeing these films. A beautiful post, x4mr. Your love of cinema and what it can be is touching.

America has the status, but India is the world's number one producer of cinema, and its spirituality is highly developed.

This makes sense.

5/02/2010 7:47 PM  
Anonymous Observer said...

The Trilogy

5/03/2010 8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anand said...

Great blog and story.

A better link than the trailers.

x4mr sees a lot for an American.

5/04/2010 9:03 PM  
Blogger x4mr said...

Anand,
Thanks so much for that link and the compliment. I am touched when those on the other side of the planet reach this place.

Regarding what I see, well, I try, and I try to share.

5/04/2010 9:24 PM  

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