Discussing the Elements trilogy

May’s female filmmaker of the month, Deepa Mehta, is best known for three movies known as the Elements films. Each was written and directed by her and focuses on a different element of Indian culture and history. Though she refers to the films as a trilogy, they are only so in a matter of themes and ideas: no characters cross over into multiple films (though several actors do), and they all take place during disconnected times and locations. The films are important not only because of their significance in Mehta’s development as a filmmaker, but because of the controversy they have stirred. The first, 1996’s Fire, is often referred to as the first serious Indian film to deal with lesbianism (it was protested by religious conservatives and banned in many locations). 1998’s Earth follows a group of people of diverse faiths dealing with 1947’s separation of India and Pakistan, and shows no lenience toward any of the groups involved (it was banned in Pakistan and edited in India). Following these, it was for 2005’s Water that Mehta faced the most trouble: in 2000, the first time she tried to shoot the movie, which communicates the plight of abandoned widows in 1930s India and indicates the problem still exists today, protests at sets in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi caused Indian officials to ban the production. Sets were burned, as were effigies of Mehta; she began receiving threats on her life. Not one to be deterred, Mehta moved the production to Sri Lanka and shot in secret with a new cast and a fake title. Her efforts paid off when the film received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film as the entry from Canada.

In watching these films, I was interested in Mehta’s use of character perspective in her narrative. Each film in some way conflates the perspective of the audience with that of the most naive of the main characters; in Earth and Water, this person is literally a child who doesn’t understand what is going on around her, much the way anyone unfamiliar with the material at hand may not understand right away. The effect is most subtle in Fire, where the audience identifies closely with Sita, a woman in her early twenties who has just entered an arranged marriage and is having trouble relating to her new family, including the husband who is openly in love with another woman and the warm but closed-off sister-in-law Sita finds herself drawn to. For the most part, we receive revelations about the other characters as Sita does, and we even come to realizations about her own character and her sexuality at roughly the same pace she seems to accept them (or we would be meant to, if we didn’t already know going in that this was a movie about lesbians). This effect allows for audiences who may not be familiar with the world we are entering to grab hold of something, but I believe those more knowledgeable about contemporary Indian culture would never feel they were being explained things that are totally obvious.

Earth and Water, however, are period pieces, and seem to be made more explicitly for audiences who have little knowledge about the events depicted. Here is where the device of framing the story from a child’s perspective comes into play, and the idea that we are being “taught” something is quite blatant. This is not necessarily a detriment; in fact, I feel that Earth, which uses this technique to the fullest extent of any of the films, is also by far the strongest of them. There, our little girl is called Lenny, and she is the daughter of wealthy members of the Parsee community, who are trying desperately to be “Switzerland” while Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs battle around them as England releases its hold on India. Her nanny, Shanta (played by the same actress who plays Sita in Fire, the slap-you-in-the-face gorgeous Nandita Das), is Hindu but belongs to a group of friends who do their best to ignore religious differences—in fact, two different Muslim men are in love with her. Lenny observes the life of her nanny, and there are times when we are quite literally seeing what goes on through her viewpoint. She understands very little about why there is so much fighting going on, asking inappropriate questions, hiding under tables to listen to adult conversations, and generally behaving in a way that helped me, as a person who doesn’t recall ever learning any specifics about these events in school, figure things out. The complete lack of subtlety in this set-up is tempered by the fact that Lenny is more than just a window, but a fascinating character in her own right. She wears a brace on one leg, but has no need to discuss it and little reason to let it affect the sense of entitlement she feels due to her family’s wealth, and she is torn between her interest in her nanny’s world and her instincts to embrace what she loves about the more English aspects of her upbringing. In fact, it is worth noting how fully realized each of the large cast of characters is in this film. I found myself wondering what a long-running TV show about this group of friends would look like, and especially wanted more of the darkly hypnotic “Ice Candy Man” Dil Navaz, played by Aamir Kahn, who is apparently an enormous star in India (and I can see why). This overall level of quality went a long way toward letting me forgive what I thought were unnecessary reflections from the future by older Lenny, which, especially at the end of the movie, pulled me out of the immediacy of the events we see depicted—the framing device is only effective when it brings us closer to the action, not when it pulls away.

In Water, we also see much through the eyes of a little girl, but the effect is very different. Like Lenny, Chuyia has no idea what is going on around her; unlike Lenny, no one seems willing to explain it to her. The movie still tries to teach us something, as Earth does, but the work is not made easy for us. Chuyia is a victim in a way that Lenny is not. At seven years old, she has already been married off and widowed. In her community, widows are viewed as almost half-dead people, as bad luck, and they are housed together and forced to live in poverty. They shave their heads and wear white saris so that everyone can tell who they are. And they must live like this for the rest of their lives—even when, like Chuyia, they were so young when they married that they don’t even remember it. Though it seems to be a more specific problem than the mess of clashing religions and the dividing of land into Pakistan and India, this treatment of widows is also harder to comprehend. The motivation for fighting for perceived self-preservation can be much more readily understood than the complete spurning of millions of women who have done nothing wrong. Justification is said to be found in ancient sacred texts; a liberal-thinking character puts it in different terms: “One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.” The sheer insanity of this policy towards widows is reflected in the film through Chuyia’s perspective, because even as she gets used to the routine of her new life, she never understands why she needs to be there. And no one can ever tell her. Though we see much that goes on that Chuyia is not privy to, the framing of the commentary on society is based on her story and her bewilderment over what she has done to deserve her treatment.

The idea of examining social issues by framing a story through a child’s perspective is far from new. I think immediately of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird (the film version of which could conceivably mark the moment when the approach becomes truly significant in American film history), Au Revoir Les Enfants, and key moments in movies as disparate as The Searchers, Atonement, Pan’s Labyrinth, and City of God. So, what do we think about this ever-popular storytelling method? Is it more effective when the audience understands more than the child (as in Mockingbird), or when we learn along with them (as in Water, provided one is not already knowledgeable of the subject)? What are some other great films or works of literature that benefit from this perspective?

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