Category: Indian independent

Nasir (India, Tamil-Netherlands 2020)

Nasir at work

Nasir is an amazing film that left me stunned after its 24 hour appearance on the We Are One online festival last Saturday. In a nutshell this is a film by a non-Muslim Tamil filmmaker from Coimbatore about 12 hours in the life of a Muslim sari-seller in the city. The film opens and closes with a static long shot of the central character lying in roughly the same position but in a different location, context and framing. It’s a brave and ultimately powerful device. I won’t describe the final shot but sadly I think you will not be surprised when it arrives.

Coimbatore is the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu, an industrial centre with a population of 1-2 million. It’s located close to the western border of the state with the Western Ghats to the west and north. The great majority of the population is Hindu but there is a significant Muslim minority of around 8-9% and a similar but slightly smaller Christian minority. Unfortunately, the rise of Modi and the BJP with its right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology is now evident on the streets in Coimbatore – even though the BJP has no political representation in the city. There have been outbreaks of sectarian violence in the city in recent years.

Nasir buys his wife a garland for her journey.

Nasir lives in very modest accommodation outside the city centre with his wife, his sick mother and a young disabled man. It isn’t clear who this young man might be but it is seems he is a relative who Nasir has adopted after the boy’s parents were killed in an accident. Today, Nasir accompanies his wife to the bus stand where she gets on a long distance coach to visit family for a few days. He then gets to work in time to open the shop with a colleague. The director, Arun Karthik, is a young man from Coimbatore making his second film. The first was shown at Rotterdam International Film Festival and this second film was made with support from the Hubert Bals Fund associated with the festival. This year Nasir won the Netpac Award for best Asian film. Like Karthik’s first feature, Nasir is a shortish film of less than 80 minutes – but he crams a great deal into that running time. The film is presented in Academy ratio (1.33: 1). I couldn’t discern any specific reason for this but it works and the simple compositions are very pleasing.

This account of daily life, offered in detail, is almost like Bresson in conception, but didn’t feel ‘Bressonian’. Nasir seems like a decent human being who sometimes goes to prayers at the mosque, who smokes beedis for relaxation and who takes pleasure in writing poetry for his wife – which proves popular with his co-workers who ask him to read out extracts. Nasir is actually a character from a short story by Dilip Kumar, the Chennai-based writer (not the star of Hindi cinema), titled ‘A Clerk’s Story’ and written during the 1990s. The focus on the small details of Nasir’s day means that the growing unease about sectarianism seems to ‘filter in’ rather than to be presented directly. As he walks through the streets, Nasir seems unaffected by the amplified voices, Hindu and Muslim, propagandising. He overhears his boss make provocative anti-Muslim remarks about any resistance to a planned Hindu march through the streets. But the same boss tries to help him get an advance on his wages – which Nasir needs for his various pressing financial problems.

Nasir waiting before a display including a small Ganesha

It’s difficult to convey how Karthik is able to present simple tasks in such a way that we engage so easily with Nasir’s concerns. But we (i.e. non-Indian audiences) do suspect that perhaps we don’t completely understand all of the cultural referents we are shown. I was struck with the images of Ganesh on the streets. I understand that the Ganesha festivals are celebrated widely across India and especially in the West and the South, but I’m most familiar with them as depicted in films set in Mumbai. Since Modi’s rise, I find the excitement roused by the festival processions to be increasingly disturbing. A blog post by our old friend Srikanth explains some of the aspects of the film which I didn’t completely understand and also offers fresh perspectives on the film (it’s worth reading the comments too). Srikanth also discusses the ending of the film. I’ve read several other reviews and this film offers a good example of how a specific decision about how to present a single incident can lead to very different readings of the overall narrative. Nasir strikes me as a successful and important film that should be seen and discussed. It’s not an ‘easy’ film in the sense that it is not an entertainment narrative or a straightforward ‘social’ film. But I don’t think it is an ‘art film’ as such. What it requires is simply that a viewer watches it without too many preconceptions. (I should also commend Saumyananda Sahi as the cinematographer on the film.) I hope Nasir is seen widely within India and in international markets.

The Warrior (India-UK-France-Germany-US 2001)

The Warrior practises his swordplay

The sad death of Irrfan Khan means a look back to some of his most significant films. The Warrior marks the point in Irrfan’s career when he had reached an impasse. Although he had already spent 14 years working in TV and film in India, he was thinking of giving it up since he was getting bored with jobs that didn’t stretch him or interest him. Fortunately he heard about Asif Kapadia’s project to make The Warrior and when the two men met they got on very well and became firm friends. When Irrfan’s death was announced at the end of April, Kapadia released a moving tribute to his friend.

The court of the local feudal lord

Asif Kapadia is Indian-British. Born in London and taking a route through UK higher education he eventually emerged on the international scene with a short film The Sheep Thief (1997) which caused a stir at various festivals. Shot in Rajasthan this is available on the DVD of The Warrior and it clearly set up the possibility of a feature set in India. The Warrior was fortunate to emerge at a time when there was more support for British film with the development of a funding and support infrastructure through the British Film Council set up by the new Labour government elected in 1997. This co-production was no doubt underway before The Film Council took over British Screen, but the new structure was always likely to try to highlight this release. It was given a spread in Sight and Sound in 2002 and won various awards around Europe. It didn’t make any direct impact in the film market in India but it did introduce both Asif Kapadia and Irrfan Khan to the European and North American segment of the festival circuit and this in turn would strengthen his position in India.

The Warrior before he ‘sees the light’

Film 4, one of the UK partners involved has long been a supporter of Indian cinema in the UK, albeit in the early hours of the morning. Still, it has links to Indian film industries and film culture and in 1994 had funded a controversial diaspora film by Shekhar Kapur, Bandit Queen. The Warrior is a very different kind of story with Kapadia and co-writer Tim Miller turning to Japanese folk-tales (presumably the reason why ‘the warrior’ is known as ‘Lafcadia’ in some listings, a possible reference to Lafcadia Hearn the Greek-Irish writer famous for his books on Japanese ghost stories). If the story is Japanese, the film also draws on Japanese cinema as well as Chinese cinemas (Taiwan/HK?) and spaghetti Westerns (which also derive from Kurosawa et al). The film narrative is very simple. ‘The Warrior’ (he isn’t named in the film) becomes disgusted with his feudal lord’s commands which mean executing tenants who can’t pay annual rents and raising villages to the ground, killing everyone. When he rebels, The Warrior becomes an outlaw pursued by the lord’s other warrior retainers. After his son is executed by his enemies he escapes to the desert, but he is finally saved by his companionship to a boy and to a girl and her family. The plot involves some ‘magic realism’ in terms of the girl. The desert scenes were shot in Rajasthan and the mountain scenes in Himachal Pradesh. I was struck by the several shots of lone trees in the desert and the use of extreme long shots covering the journeys taken. Some of these made me think of traditional East Asian visual art rather than the style of contemporary Indian cinema. I’ve included several images of the ‘long shot style’ here.

The warrior, shorn of his locks, with his young companion . . .

. . . pursued by by his former second-in-command, Biswas

At around 86 minutes, the film is short but it is packed with some stunning cinematography by Roman Dosin on his first film as DoP. The music by Dario Marianelli works well with the ‘Scope photography. I think both Osin and Marianelli must have met Asif Kapadia in London. They worked on his next few films. The star of the show, however, is Irrfan khan. He has relatively little dialogue, but he says a great deal with his eyes, one of his strengths. Kapadia does well to organise a cast which includes only a few other professional actors amid a much larger group of local non-professionals, some of them in significant roles.

The key moment in the narrative, a form of magic realism when the warrior changes his actions

Since his critical success with this film, Asif Kapadia has had no luck with three further features, none of which made much money, but he has become a hot name in documentary with his trio of biography pics, Senna (UK-Brazil 2010), Amy (UK 2015) and Diego Maradona (UK 2019). I hope he doesn’t give up on features and if I can find time, I might look at the earlier ‘flops’. Irrfan Khan’s career took off from this point. He got more prestigious roles in Hindi cinema and was recruited by diaspora and American/European directors shooting in India.

Not Just Bollywood: Waiting (India, Hinglish 2016)

Waiting is a wonderful example of the so called ‘Hindie’ development in Indian film production – films made mainly in Hindi but not as part of mainstream Bollywood or specifically as art films. Instead they are ‘Hindi Independent films’. However, as I’ve indicated in the title of this post, the language of Waiting is officially registered by the Central Board of Film Certification as ‘Hinglish’. This means that the dialogue between the central characters is usually conducted in the English used by educated middle-class Indians punctuated by phrases from Hindi that are slipped in almost unconsciously. Some of the minor characters speak Hindi. Even though the action is mainly located in Kerala, nobody (that I noticed) speaks in Malayalam – but there is a joke about a character’s refusal to do so and about North v. South speech patterns generally. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t see much of Kerala apart from a couple of scenes by the backwaters – Kochi (Cochin) is one of the main tourist destinations in India. It wouldn’t be appropriate to have too many beautiful landscapes/waterscapes in this film. It’s mainly an internal narrative for the two central characters. The setting in Kerala is important for a narrative that is built around binaries – in this case the the calmer, more academic/intellectual tone of middle class Kerala and the more brash, materialistic world of Mumbai. Further binaries are associated with age/generation and with the backgrounds of the film’s two stars. Naseeruddin Shah has been a leading actor in India for more than forty years, going back to the parallel cinema of the 1970s/80s as well as later appearing in Bollywood and international films. Kalki Koechlin had a first major role only in 2009 but quickly established herself in the new world of ‘Hindie’ films, becoming something of a ‘poster girl’ for this new type of Indian film. When this couple come together there are many opportunities for narrative development.

The first meeting when a distraught Tara assumes Shiv is a doctor.

The two stars play characters who meet at the very swish new hospital in Kochi (Cochin) where their respective spouses have been admitted, each in a comatose state. Shah’s character Shiv is a retired professor whose wife has been supported for some time on a ventilator and it seems unlikely that she will ever wake up. The cost of her care is steadily bankrupting Shiv after the medical insurance benefits have run out, but still he hopes for a recovery. Koechlin’s character Tara has just flown in from Mumbai after hearing that her new husband has been in a serious road accident during a business trip and she will face decisions about major operations that she must sanction knowing they carry significant risks – but also that they are needed if he is to recover at all. This sounds like it could be a distressing narrative or that it might turn into a sentimental Hollywood type of film. Instead it becomes a deeply humanist film about two people who develop a relationship in very difficult circumstances. Very importantly, there are no contrived endings for either character. The drama – and the comedy – in the film develops from the situations in which the characters find themselves and how they react differently and still try to support each other.

Religion offers one of the possibilities for culture clash.

The comedy comes from the clash between Shiv’s fairly austere and cultured academic and Tara’s modern young woman enmeshed in social media. It is also there in the behaviour of minor characters of the young man representing Tara’s husband’s company and Shiv’s neighbour’s maid who brings him home-cooked food. These are polite young Keralites bemused by both Shiv and Tara. The narrative also has a kind of ‘pantomime villain’ in the shape of the doctor/consultant Malhotra looking after both medical cases. He’s played by actor-writer-director Rajat Kapoor, another major figure from independent cinema in India. It’s a difficult role and the film gently satirises Malhotra as appearing like a ‘company man’ mouthing platitudes and dealing with the economics of the care as much as the medical prognosis. Yet Dr Malhotra has difficult decisions to make just like everyone else. In a flashback we do see Shiv’s life with his wife who is played by Suhasini, the partner of Tamil director Mani Ratnam. This flashback is balanced in the narrative in structural terms by the arrival of Tara’s best friend Ishita who provides advice and support, some of it helpful, some of it not. But the final decisions must remain with Tara and Shiv.

Anu Menon (right) with her stars

Waiting is written and directed by Anu Menon, making it part of the celebration of ‘Women in Global Cinema’ at HOME in Manchester during 2019 (the film shoot also had a primarily female crew). Anu Menon is from a South Indian background but she grew up in Delhi, gained a degree at a prestigious technical university and then began to work in advertising. Eventually she realised that selling soap and soft drinks was not what she wanted to do and she enrolled at the London Film School. Waiting is her second fiction feature. The film was shot by Neha Parti Matiyani who is one of the few experienced women in the Hindi film industry.

When I screened this film for an audience the first time, I remember one person suggesting that it wasn’t very ‘Indian’ – in fact it could have been set anywhere. I was reminded of that comment this week when I have been working on the film Timbuktu and watching interviews with its director Abderrahmane Sissako. His view seems to be that stories are usually about people and that people everywhere face similar problems, only the context and how we view them and their problems changes. This is I think one of the tenets of the humanism that has informed many of the most successful ‘global filmmakers’ since 1945. Waiting is a humanist film that just happens to involve the educated middle-class. It does make me wonder, however, what is happening in private hospitals like this during the coronavirus pandemic in India. Waiting seems to have been well received by critics in India but its box office results arguably don’t match the appreciation that most critics and audiences expressed. I don’t think the film received a UK release and these Hindie films still struggle to get a release in the UK unless they are acquired by a UK arthouse distributor. The film has been compared to films like The Lunchbox (2013), which did well in the UK through Curzon, and I would recommend Waiting. It can be found online and on DVD in the UK.

Not Just Bollywood: Sir (India-France, English-Hindi-Marathi 2018)

Laxmi (Geetanjali Kulkarni, left) and Ratna (Tillotama Shome) go shopping together

Sir begins in a village in what I assume is the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. A young woman is about to return to Mumbai where she is a live-in domestic servant in the apartment of a young man who should be on his honeymoon. But the marriage did not take place and Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is now in a potentially difficult situation. Previously the young couple were living together in the apartment and the young architect Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) is now on his own. What follows over the next week is a form of ‘odd couple’ drama. The narrative is deceptively simple but carries both an emotional weight and a subtle social commentary. It is a very fine and delicate piece of filmmaking, deserving its appearance in Cannes Critics Week in 2018. Rohena Gera makes her début as a fiction feature writer-director though she has considerable experience in both American and Indian film industries.

Gera trained in the US and she clearly knows the Mumbai upper middle-class and the largely English-speaking families whose sons and daughters have been to university in the US. But she has done her research carefully and the narrative is largely driven by the village woman who has come to Mumbai, hoping to send money home and to train as a tailor in whatever spare time she can find. Ratna was widowed at 19 soon after her marriage, placing her in a difficult situation in her traditional village – which she hopes to escape in the city.

Vivek Gomber and Tillotama Shome

Tillotama Shome gives a wonderful performance in a role for which she had to learn Marathi to converse with her character’s family. At work Ratna needs enough Hindi and English to cope with her role as a ‘domestic’. Most reviewers refer to Shome’s role in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) but in the Press Notes Gera tells us that it was Shome’s performance in Qissa (2013) that convinced her that the Bengali star of independent and mainstream cinema was right for the role. She also reveals that although she was impressed by Vivek Gomber’s terrific performance in Court (2014) she didn’t think he was right for the role of Ashwin. Fortunately, friends convinced her she was wrong and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role as Gomber manages to find the perfect combination of frustration, decency and repressed emotion to suggest how Ashwin feels. Although she is only in a supporting role Geetanjali Kulkarni makes an important contribution as Ratna’s fellow domestic servant, Laxmi, from a neighbouring apartment where she is a nanny (ayah?) cum maid/housekeeper – a rather different role to her public prosecutor pitted against Vivek Gomber in Court. But Kulkarni’s characters  often seem to be working-class or what in the UK would be lower middle-class. The nuances of class are just as important in India. Ratna’s difficult position in Sir is beautifully illustrated in the sequence in which Ashwin’s parents hold a reception where, as a servant, Ratna is virtually invisible. She serves guests and then returns to the kitchen where squatting on the floor she joins the other servants to eat their food. When Ashwin comes to speak to her, he embarrasses her in front of her friends – people should know their place. At this point Ashwin and Ratna know that they cannot be together. The social class divisions are too important and other people would suffer if they attempt to cross boundaries.

Rohena Gera finds an ingenious way to end her narrative. I’ve seen some Western reviews from Cannes that don’t really ‘get’ the story but this one from an Indian critic makes sense to me. Baradwaj Rangan points out that Gera covers several important social issues in Modi’s ‘Shining India’ but that she first makes a film rather than an argument. I think he’s right. There is something universal and humanist about the story which is also rooted in Indian society. Formally the narrative presents between a ‘closed’ romance melodrama within the flat where the mise en scène says a lot about the invisible barriers between the employer and servant with shots of Ratna’s room, the ‘dividing walls’ of the apartment and the wariness with which the characters approach each other. But when we move outside the building and follow Ratna around the city and back to the village, a different sort of story develops. The neutral location turns out to be on the roof of the building. In a Cannes interview Rohena Gera explains what she thought this overall split meant. Fundamentally though, the film works because of two terrific central performances. YouTube features a Cannes interview by the two actors together which reveals how much they worked with each other to build a convincing relationship.

I enjoyed the film very much and I look forward to seeing what Rohena Gera does next. Here’s a sequence in which Ratna and Laxmi borrow the doorman’s scooter and go shopping. If you go to YouTube you can find the second Cannes clip in which Ratna and Ashwin are together in the flat . . .

. . . and here is the international trailer:

Not Just Bollywood: A Death in the Gunj (India, English 2017)

The clan gathers . . .

For several reasons this film is key to an understanding of what ‘Not Just Bollywood’ might mean in relation to the history of film traditions in India and in particular, the history of filmmaking described as ‘independent’ or ‘parallel cinema’ which is the primary interest of the season’s co-curator Dr Omar Ahmed. I’ll try to explain.

The title of the film may not mean much outside India. The story is located in a ‘colony’ in the small hill town of McCluskiegunj (or ‘ganj’) in what is now Jharkhand state but which in 1979, when the story is set, was part of Bihar. The colony was originally set up in 1933 by a Calcutta businessman named McCluskie as a settlement for members of the then substantial community of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta. The film represents the directorial debut of the celebrated actor Konkona Sen Sharma. She wrote the screenplay herself, based on a story written by her father Mukul Sharma and with assistance by Disha Rindani. Konkona’s mother, the equally celebrated Bengali actor-director Aparna Sen, has a small ‘voice only’ part in the film.

A Death in the Gunj received many nominations for the 2018 Filmfare Awards in India, winning some technical awards and the award for ‘Debutant Director’. The reviews were generally very good and the film played at Toronto and other major festivals. I was surprised that many of the reviews failed to mention that the story is about an Anglo-Indian family. This suggests to me that the drama (and, at times, comedy of ‘manners’) was perhaps not fully appreciated by some reviewers outside India. As Wikipedia helpfully suggests, the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ has been used in three different ways. Historically it might refer to those British colonial administrators and soldiers who spent most of their lives in India during the Raj (and earlier) or the original communities of Indians living in the UK. Now, however, it tends to refer specifically to the families formed through mixed marriages whose members tended to form distinct communities in various cities, but especially in Calcutta, during the early 20th century. Anglo-Indians tended to speak English and to identify as Christians. Before 1947 they were mainly employed in administrative jobs but after Independence the communities declined as many families emigrated to the UK and other Anglophone countries.

Anglo-Indians appear in several well-known films. The Hollywood adaptation of John Masters’ novel Bhowani Junction (novel 1954, film 1956) stars Ava Gardner, Stewart Granger and Bill Travers and was directed by George Cukor. It focused on a railway family (a key Anglo-Indian profession) living close to the partition line in 1947. Satyajit Ray includes an Anglo-Indian character in Mahanagar (The Big City, India 1963). This character, a young woman in Calcutta working for a new company in the early 1950s, enables Ray to explore a range of issues about modernity and prejudice and to contrast this character with the film’s protagonist, a young Bengali housewife attempting to start a working life outside the home. Anglo-Indians in Bengali narratives of the 1950s-70s invariably cue social issues. A Death in the Gunj features mainly English dialogue for the family members with some Hindi and Bengali used with the house servants (who are local tribal people).

Kalki Koechlin as Mimi and Vikrant Massey as Shutu

A Death in the Gunj focuses on one central family who are hosting a New Year holiday gathering. The parents who live in a house in the Gunj forest are played by Tanuja and Om Puri as the Bakshis. Their guests include their son Nandu (Gulshan Devaiah), his wife Bonnie (Tillotama Shome) and small daughter Tani (Arya Sharma). The other family member is their nephew Shutu (Vikram Massey). The other guest staying in the house is Bonnie’s friend Mimi (Kalki Koechlin). But over the holiday period there are a number of other visitors who also have family in the Gunj. Nandu’s friends, Vikram (Ranvir Shorey) who is a highly disruptive influence (and who seems to spend time away from his new wife Purnima (Promila Pradhan)) and Brian (Jim Sarbh) is hoping to leave for Australia are both present for many scenes. In this mixed group it soon becomes clear that there is a bully and a character who is bullied, but most of the characters are self-centred in their own ways. There are also clear conflicts in terms of class, gender, age and ethnicity. I’ve seen the film described as a critique of patriarchy, which may indeed be the case, but for me the central reference is to a couple of Satyajit Ray films and no doubt others I know less well.

I was immediately reminded of Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1969) in which a quartet of young (upper) middle-class young men from Calcutta spend a week in a forest resort area (forcing a caretaker to break rules and open a government bungalow) in Bihar. They insult the local tribal people and then team up with a family group  from Calcutta, including two bright and socially confident young women. There is a direct link between this film and A Death in the Gunj in the form of Aparna Sen who has a small role in each film. I also think that Ray’s earlier film Kanchenjungha (1964) and Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer (2002) (in which Konkona Sen Sharma stars) offer clues about the scenario of urban sophisticates on holiday or travelling away from Calcutta.

I personally see this film as a critique of Bengali upper middle-class mores worked through by an Anglo-Indian family (i.e. without the same resources or social status). Perhaps they are struggling with the British legacy (why is the story set in 1979?). Shutu is suffering because he is not ‘manly’ and is also a ‘failure’ as a student. Mimi is ‘modern’ but struggling with her sexuality and independence, O.P. (the Om Puri father character) in one of his last roles is playing a character whose time seems to be up and Nandu and Bonnie are struggling to bring up Tani in a modern family set-up. The tribals are treated badly or are ignored by most of the house party except Shutu.

As well as the links back to the films of Ray and her mother, Konkona Sen Sharma also links to the new ‘Independent Indian Cinema’ and to the more radical strains in contemporary commercial Hindi cinema. Ranvir Shorey has been a star of both commercial and Hindie films (he was married to Konkona Sen Sharma from 2010-2015). Om Puri straddled both sectors and Konkona herself straddles Bengali cinema, Bollywood and the independents. It’s no surprise that the film shares actors with three of the other films in the HOME season. Tillotama Shome stars in Sir and Kalki Koeklin in Waiting. Vikrant Massey has a supporting role in Lipstick Under My Burkha and Konkona Sen Sharma herself is one of the four leads in that film. The benefits of all these links include a strong sense of ensemble performance with support for the debutant director.

A Death in the Gunj is a remarkable début for Konkona the director and I was completely engaged throughout. The film isn’t a mystery as the death is represented at the beginning of the film, though in a rather oblique way, and then a flashback forms the main part of the narrative presenting the events which led up to the tragedy. I want to praise the cinematography by Sirsha Ray and the background score by Sagar Desai. I was in that forest, feeling the cold of December and experiencing the tensions in the family. The real tragedy is that the film was not released in the UK. It would easily stand up to comparison with any UK/US or European releases. However, I realise that the audiences who enjoyed the films of Ray and Mrinal Sen in the 1970s in the UK are now much harder to find. Still, well done to HOME for giving us the chance to see the such a wonderful film.

Not Just Bollywood: Deepa Mehta’s ‘Elements Trilogy’

Shabana Azmi (left) and Nandita Das in Fire

Not Just Bollywood: 2019 opens tomorrow with a rare screening of Deepa Mehta‘s trilogy of films addressing political and social issues in Indian society. Deepa Mehta is an example of one of the important ‘diasporic’ or ‘exilic’ directors who have offered radical perspectives on Indian cinema and society through their films. In this respect she joins other important filmmakers such as Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur and Gurinder Chadha. I don’t want to discuss the differences between ‘exilic’ and ‘diasporic’ here, only to recognise that for various reasons these filmmakers have been trained in and worked in other film industries/film cultures but have travelled to India to make Indian films with Indian stories. In the selection of six women who have directed films in India for this mini-season, three of the others, Dar Gai, Anu Menon and Rohena Gera, have similar experiences of training and living outside India.

Deepa Mehta was born in Amritsar before moving as a child to Delhi and eventually graduating from Delhi university. In 1973 she emigrated to Canada with her husband, a Canadian documentary filmmaker. In Canada Mehta developed a career in documentary before moving into TV drama and eventually feature film production. In 1991 she directed a a Toronto-set film Sam and Me which featured an Indian family and the actors Om Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Javed Jaffrey as cast members. The latter two of this trio would become important in the Elements Trilogy when Mehta travelled to India to make Fire set in Delhi in 1995. Kulbhushan Kharbanda also featured in Earth made in 1998 and Water, completed in 2005. This last film, proved to be so controversial as a production that it had to be delayed and re-started, losing some of the other original cast members.

Deepa Mehta discusses the background to the trilogy in this Canadian interview which looks back on the selection of Water as the Canadian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2007:

She explains that she didn’t expect that the films would become controversial and that what attracted her were the stories themselves. She saw them as women’s stories, stories about women’s choices or rather the lack of choices that women in India have. The stories are set in different time periods and in different parts of India, but all three stories explore social issues still relevant today. Mehta suggests that she now sees that these kinds of stories are controversial in societies experiencing ‘hyper-nationalism’ because people are encouraged to attack anything that threatens a sense of a set national culture, they feel uncomfortable about anything that wants to question or set up a ‘conversation’ about what has happened and what might need to be changed. The interview was in 2017 in Canada and she refers to Trump’s America but it could be Modi’s India or Johnson’s UK right now, so she’s right to say that the stories are universal.

Fire, the first screening on Wednesday 11th September, offers a story about a young woman Sita (Nandita Das) who travels to Delhi to marry Jatin (Javed Jaffrey) but soon discovers that he has a mistress and no interest in his bride. Sita finds herself in a household of two brothers who share a shop. Jatin rents out videos and Ashok (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs a grocery business. Ashok, for different reasons shuns his wife Radha (Shabana Azmi) and the two wives find themselves caring for Ashok’s elderly bed-ridden mother with the servant Mundu. The two women turn to each other for a real relationship. Deepa Mehta wrote the script herself but Wikipedia references Gayatri Gopinath as the source for a suggestion that the story is inspired by Ismat Chughtai‘s 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt). Fire is a Canadian film made as a co-production with India. The story and the cast are Indian but the cinematographer Giles Nuttgens is British and editor Barry Farrell is Canadian – both also work in the US. On the other hand the music is by A R Rahman and other creative posts are held by Indians. The film’s dialogue is mostly in English. This choice is not that unusual in India and places the film in relation to some examples of what was known as ‘middle cinema’ in the 1980s in India and what is sometimes included under the heading of ‘parallel cinema’. The film to some extent ‘crossed over’ to a wider potential audience in India because of the subject content. Lesbian relationships were rare in Indian cinema at this point and this attracted protestors and attempts to shut down cinemas screening the film. One aspect of the narrative that was not so accessible for audiences outside India was the ‘play’ with the traditional depictions of Radha and Sita in the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. Mehta appears to have possibly reversed the qualities of the two traditional characters.

Aamir Khan and Nandita Das in Earth

Earth carried the title 1947: Earth in India, a direct indicator of its setting during the final weeks leading up to Partition. This story is an adaptation of a biographical novel by Bapsi Sidhwa first published in the UK in 1988 as Ice Candy Man and the later in the US (1991) and India (1992) as Cracking India. Lenny is an 8 year-old girl in a Lahore Parsi family. She is recovering from polio and his very close to Shanta a young Hindu woman from South India employed as the household maid but seen by Lenny as her ‘Ayah’. Shanta is played by Nandita Das and the voiceover of the adult Lenny is delivered as narration at certain points by Shabana Azmi. The production is in many ways similar to Fire (so there is the same mix of Indian and European/Canadian creative personnel), but there are two differences that might make it more meaningful for Indian audiences (on top of the fact that the subject matter is so important in the history of India). First, the central character of the Ice Candy Man is played by Aamir Khan, already a leading Bollywood star and second, the dialogue features Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati with English only spoken by Lenny and her parents. The film was India’s Foreign Language Oscar nomination in 1999.

The Parsi family are close to the British in Lahore and are not part of the growing rift between the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in the city. The narrative cleverly weaves a story of romance through the events with Shanta being the object of desire for both the Muslim Ice Candy man and the Hindu masseur. The film must have felt personal for Deepa Mehta who was born in Amritsar only a few years after Partition and she must have heard the stories of anguish for those displaced into either Indian or Pakistani Punjab after the line was drawn and so many were killed. The trains arriving in stations full of those killed after attacks had come from or were going to cities like Amritsar or Lahore. I think Earth may be the film that affected me most in the trilogy. In a sense there is nothing ‘controversial’ in the film, except that it stirs memories and introduces younger viewers to the calamity that was the British partition of India. It does, however, also relate to the contemporary ‘communalism’ clashes in some parts of India.

Water, by contrast, was taken to be a direct challenge to Hindu traditions and appeared at a time when the ‘Religious Right’ was growing in strength in India. Deepa Mehta wrote this story herself with some dialogue written by Anurag Kashyap. Later Bapsi Sidhwa collaborated with Mehta again and wrote a ‘novelisation’ of the film. The film should have been shot in 2000 in Varanasi as the location (as Benares) in 1938 where a young child is taken to a house of widows after the death of her adult husband. Hindu traditions decreed that widows must live away from the outside world. The protests turned violent and the film’s set by the ghats was destroyed. A deeply upset director was offered permission to shoot in neighbouring states where the BJP was not in power such as West Bengal and Bihar, but she decided to postpone the shoot. In interviews she has said that she was too angry to continue and that shooting a film fuelled by anger would damage her artistic vision. Eventually she decided to move the shoot to Sri Lanka five years later. This worked well for the production overall but she lost the opportunity to cast Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das for a third time. The younger and older women’s roles went to Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas. Lisa Ray had appeared in Deepa Mehta’s earlier Canadian film Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) and was just beginning to attract attention from Indian filmmakers. Seema Biswas is probably best known to UK audiences as the lead performer in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (India-UK 1994).

The narrative involves a meeting between the child widow and a law student follower of Gandhi. This is Narayan played by John Abraham from Kerala who, like Lisa Ray, had been a leading fashion model and was only just established as an unusual leading man in Hindi cinema. But if Lisa Ray and John Abraham raised a few eyebrows in India, the veteran star Waheeda Rahman playing Narayan’s mother was a re-assuring presence.

I wrote about encountering Water on its UK release in an early posting on this blog. I don’t want to repeat those points here and I may have different responses now but the post is worth visiting, partly to follow the links to other writers at the time. As the interview above indicates, Water was a big hit in Canada and is seen by many as Deepa Mehta’s greatest achievement. Its reception in India was more mixed but it had champions as well as detractors. It will be interesting to see what the audience at HOME makes of the film today when contemporary films have become much more explicit and challenging about the abuse directed at women in India which is so deeply rooted in the society. Having recently watched Article 15 and The Incessant Fear of Rape I’m sorry not to be able to attend the HOME screening of Water on Wednesday 18 September and gauge the reaction.

The trilogy is a major achievement by Deepa Mehta and this is a timely screening for the three films.