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September 8, 2008 | by  | in Film |
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The Elements Trilogy

Directed by Deepa Mehta

On the night of 2 December 1998, two hundred followers of the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena stormed a cinema in suburban Mumbai and smashed equipment in protest at Deepa Mehta’s Fire. The film, which had been running to full houses for almost a month, offended them not so much because it depicts a pair of neglected housewives forming a lesbian relationship, but because they take their names from the goddesses Sita and Radha; they argued that homosexuality was “not a part of Indian history,” and that “If women’s physical needs get fulfilled through lesbian acts, the institution of marriage will collapse.” More vandalised cinemas followed the first, forcing owners to stop running the film and refer it back to censors – fortunately, due in part to Mehta’s candlelit vigil against censorship, the film was free to be rereleased in 1999.

Drenched in red and black, Fire sizzles with the constant tension between these women and the men who threaten and ignore them, but suggests passion can triumph over cruelty. It turned out to be the first in an ‘Elements Trilogy’, followed by the ochre and orange-toned Earth and the cold blue-white Water. Earth, which Mehta adapted from Bapsi Sidwa’s novel Cracking India, is the pinnacle of the trilogy. Set in Northwestern India at the time of partition, the film follows a group of young educated Indians from different religions – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Parsi – through the narration of Lenny, a wealthy Parsi girl suffering from polio at the time of film’s setting. Her Ayah, the gorgeous Hindu Shanta, is the focal point of the group, pursued by both Dil, the witty Hindu ice candy man, and sensual, loving Muslim masseur Hassan. As the group is torn apart when their land is partitioned into part of Pakistan, petty acts of attempted genocide (particularly the rape of women associated with the enemy) multiply and the characters lives are crushed. Fortunately, because the film was set in Pakistan, it wasn’t seen to undermine the Indian state and received the best airing of the three ‘Elements’ films.

At the heart of both Earth and Fire are starring performances by Nandita Das – newlywed Sita, forced to serve her husband’s bitter family, in Fire; singer Shanta in Earth. Despite giving two of the greatest performances in the 1990s, Das has admitted she basically just uses acting as a tool to promote the issues plaguing her social conscience. Unfortunately, the first attempted version of Water, with her in the lead, was abandoned in 2000 after protesters burned the set and threw it into the Ganges; it was eventually reshot in Sri Lanka with different (though nevertheless exceptionally talented) actors and submitted as Canada’s entry into the 2005 Academy Award’s Best Foreign-Language Film category.

Set during Gandhi’s tours to spread the cause of independence, Water follows the eight year old widow Chuyia’s exile to a widow’s ashram. Mehta exposes the pettiness of the ashram’s senior widows in exploiting their younger charges, particular the ethereal Kalyani, whom they pimp out to local bigwigs. Chuyia and Kalyani bond over their love of animals, and Chuyia eventually leads Kalyani to the dashing, liberal Narayan, follower of the Mahatma. From there it’s love and political freedom versus entrenched hypocrisy. Where Fire is passionate and Earth is devastating, Water is sad but hopeful for the future.

The Elements Trilogy
draws us backwards over a century of talented women oppressed by men’s traditions. Deepa Mehta studied philosophy before taking on her society in film and relocating to Canada. Her understanding of interpersonal behaviour is matched by her ability to suggest tragedies which sometimes come to pass and sometimes don’t. Her women are condemned to the tides of history – something as massive as partitioned smashes them as it sweeps men’s paranoia and other women’s greedy complicity into an unstoppable, elemental force. The trilogy’s historical arc is unmatched in the last twenty years of filmmaking and provides a compelling cinematic condemnation of the patriarchy.

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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