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.
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.
I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .
So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.) She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.
Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. including Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 20th century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.
Production and reception
Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.
The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.
Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.
Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.
Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:
I finally managed to see Deepa Mehta’s Water and I surprised myself by being quite moved by the film which deals with a clash between the tradition of widows being effectively imprisoned for the rest of their lives and the possibility of change in India coming from Gandhian political ideas. The focus of the narrative is a romance between a young widow and a law student and its impact on two other widows. My sense was that, despite the controversy which caused production in India to be stopped and moved to Sri Lanka and the film’s subsequent success in gaining an Oscar nomination, the UK reviews were rather lukewarm. I remember enjoying Fire (1996), the first of the ‘elemental trilogy’, but also finding it a strange Indian/Western hybrid. I’m intending to watch Earth (1998) later this week.
Water, I was convinced, was an Indian film. I didn’t research the film before I watched it so I wasn’t aware that it had been filmed in Sri Lanka. However, I did get a sense during the screening of watching landscapes in South India rather than on the Ganges. Lisa Ray and John Abraham were new to me. I can understand some of the comments about the realism question. Both actors are very beautiful and their parentage (Ray is Indian/Polish and Abraham is Iranian/Indian Christian) means that they look exotic in an Indian setting. But really it isn’t a problem and in a way their casting adds another level of meaning to any reading of the narrative. I was also surprised to be offered a selection of A. R. Rahman songs – but I shouldn’t have been his music is in all three films in the trilogy. At least one song was mixed badly in the film print I watched, but overall they seemed to work.
The big issue, of course, is whether the film works in the same way in the West as in India. On IMDB, the Canadian reviews are generally excellent, partly pride in Canadian Cinema, partly a Western liberal response to the plight of widows in 1930s India, I guess. IMDB reviews and comments by Indians on the other hand are sometimes extremely negative. I attribute this to the obverse of the Canadian response – a feeling that the filmmaker has somehow betrayed Indian culture/is not proud of Indian Cinema, but also from a Hindu perspective, the film is disrespectful of religious teachings. There is a great deal about the controversy over Water scattered across the internet and I don’t particularly want to get embroiled in the politics of Hindu Nationalism. What interests me here is what the Indian critics have to say about the film – as a film. I came across a blog [unfortunately now not available], seemingly by an NRI/desi with deep knowledge of Indian ‘parallel cinema’, that offered a withering appraisal – much of it focusing on aspects of the film requiring cultural knowledge. For instance, the spoken Hindi in the film is ‘stilted’ and doesn’t convey any authenticity. Similarly, the saris are polyester, the taxis in the street are wrong, the costumes are wrong and so is the representation of Gandhi at the end of the film. The blogger is angry with the film on nearly every level, including what is seen as a crass use of quotes from Hindu writings. Overall, the blogger pines for the directors and stars of parallel cinema. Lisa Ray and John Abraham are criticised for their acting. I’m always worried by these criticisms since appraisal of acting styles is often highly subjective. However, I can see that the film would have been very different if Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das had appeared as the two adult widows (the third widow is a child) as Deepa Mehta originally intended. (A report on the original shoot by one of the camera crew is on this Bright Lights Film Journal page.)
I wish my knowledge of parallel cinema was more extensive, but I’ve seen quite a few and Water wouldn’t stand up to a comparison with the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen or of Shyam Benegal. There were moments when the scenario and some aspects of the cinematography reminded me of those earlier films (I think it’s the second film of the Apu Trilogy from Ray, Aparajito (1956) which features the ghats of Benares) but overall Deepa Mehta’s aim was different. Like Mira Nair, she is trying to make films about Indian culture for both a Western audience and a younger popular audience in India. And on this score, according to a number of Indian reviews, she seems to have succeeded. The film is: “Art without being arty, which is truly rare and wonderful” as one Indian blogger puts it. (The comments on that blog post are also worth reading.) This doesn’t negate the cultural criticism (and I did find more) and I think that is a weakness. On the other hand, shifting production to Sri Lanka must have been a nightmare and to manage to achieve what she has in the circumstances deserves support. To attract audiences to a consideration of social issues, even if it involves some misunderstandings is something Bollywood hasn’t managed. Despite the criticisms some Indians seem to have supported Water as an Oscar contender (as the Canadian foreign language entry) over the Indian entry Rang De Basanti – I guess I should see that soon and look at a comparison.