Water, the third part of Deepa Mehta’s “Elements” trilogy, premiered
at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival after years of disappointment and
delay, and is finally being released in the USA this spring. The
attempt to film Water in India touched off waves of protests by
supporters of Hindutva (Hindu cultural nationalism). When the original
production in the holy city of Benares was shut down in 1999, four
years passed before Mehta was able to resume filming in Sri Lanka.
Audiences everywhere are now indebted to Mehta for her perseverance;
Water is a luminous film, a triumphant tribute to Mehta’s faith in
humanity despite all the reasons for despair.
Sarala (“Chuyia”) with
("Auntie") in a scene from Water.
Photo Credit: Devyani Saltzman
© TCFFC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
"Curiosity is what motivates
me generally, curiosity about the oppression of women in
--director/screenwriter Deepa Mehta
Water opens in selected cities
across the USA in May and June.
Deepa Mehta first achieved international prominence with the release
of Fire in 1996. Newlyweds Jatin and Sita are both from proper
middle-class families. They’re expected to find satisfaction in their
arranged marriage, but neither of them can. Ignored by her husband,
the bride slowly develops a passionate interest in her sister-in-law
Radha. Jatin’s brother Ashok is a religious man and Sita assumes that
Radha is equally devout, but as the two women get to know each other,
Sita realizes that Radha’s spirit has been stifled by Ashok’s
The release of Fire sent shock-waves throughout India where a lesbian
relationship between two characters named after Hindu goddesses was
perceived as a deliberate affront by fundamentalists. But Mehta’s
elegant storytelling skills and the powerfully restrained performances
of her two lead actresses (Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das) were widely
acclaimed in the West, and Fire received numerous film festival
Two years later, Mehta released Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s
autobiographical novel Cracking India. Unlike Fire which is set in the
vague present, Earth is set at a specific point in historical time:
the moment right before British rule ended in 1947, prompting India
and Pakistan to declare themselves separate countries.
Earth’s main character is Lenny Sethna (Maia Sethna), the daughter of
a prominent Parsee family living in the cosmopolitan city of Lahore.
Lenny has been born into a very comfortable life; Hindus, Moslems, and
Sikhs all dine together as friends at her parents’ gracious table. But
soon political disagreements intrude on her world, and Lenny watches
in confusion as the adult relationships around her begin to fragment.
Atrocities on all sides lead to escalating violence and inevitable
Mehta is careful to show the unfolding horror through Lenny’s innocent
eyes, and told from a child’s perspective the story of this one
specific ethnic conflict achieves heart-breaking universality.
With Water, Mehta once again tells a deeply personal story set in a
moment of great historical change. This time the year is 1938, and
Gandhi is just beginning to mobilize the crowds that will inevitably
drive the British out of India a decade later. But eight year old
Chuyia (Sarala) knows nothing about any of this; she is a child beset
by her own miseries. Married to a man she barely knew, Chuyia is
already a widow. According to custom, her father and her mother-in-law
bring her to an ashram in Benares (the holy city on the Ganges River
now called Varanasi), where she is expected to renounce the world and
spend the rest of her life in mourning.
For the other women in the ashram, Chuyia is an immediately
destabilizing force. As they look at her, they see the children they
once were, and they also see the children they will never have.
Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), who has devoted herself to religious
rituals for years, begins to ache with long-buried maternal longings.
The more she tries to change Chuyia, channeling her youthful energy
into “appropriate” behavior, the more Shakuntala comes to question her
own choices. Does she really want Chuyia to live the same life of
sacrifice and self-suppression?
The three chapters of the trilogy, which Mehta both wrote and
directed, share common concerns. Like Radha in Fire, Shakuntala is
deeply disturbed by watching a vibrant youngster rapidly age under the
weight of tradition. Like Lenny in Earth, Chuyia becomes the unwitting
facilitator of a doomed romance. But the mood of each film is set by a
distinct palette keyed to its title: the glowing the reds and oranges
of passion in Fire, the dusty browns and grays of civil war in Earth,
and the bleached white of religious asceticism in Water. When the
widows celebrate the spring festival of Holi by throwing powdered dye
on Chuyia’s sari, the burst of color is almost painful.
Deepa Mehta has created unforgettable women in the course of her
distinguished career. Her main characters (Lenny, Radha, and
Shakuntala) all start out obedient, but their reservoirs of inner
strength inspire us.
"The trilogy is about elements on one level that
nurture and destroy us. They are very tangible elements. Fire is
about the politics of sexuality, Earth is about the politics of
nationalism and Water is about the politics of religion."
Fire (1996) and
Earth (1998) are both available on DVD
For more information,
read Devyani Saltzman’s firsthand account.
Deepa Mehta (right) with her daughter Devyani Saltzman.
Photo courtesy of Newmarket Press.
Jan Lisa Huttner is the managing editor of
Films for Two: The Online Guide for
Busy Couples. In addition to freelance work for a variety of print
and online publications, Jan writes regular columns for the
JUF News, Chicago's
Jewish community monthly, and
Chicago Woman, a
bi-monthly published by The Woman's Newspapers. She is an active
member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Illinois
Woman's Press Association.