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Who is Beneath the Coloured Veil? – Let’s Look at the Indian Women Depicted in Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy | Part 1

“Cinema not only reflects culture, it also shapes. When we consider Indian films, we see how they have promoted modernization, westernization, urbanization, new ways of life … the emancipation of women and the rights of minorities.” – Gokulsing and Dissanayake, 1998.


When one thinks of Indian films or literature, there is an overwhelming sense of vibrancy in the depictions of color, music, and architecture, an exotic world to be explored and consumed. Yet, among this vibrant display of colors, sounds, and scenery, there lies a darkness quite forgotten. On this side of the spectrum, lies a world in which Indian women are victims of oppression and ostracism by the system of patriarchy from their first breaths. If these women were awarded the opportunity to speak of their injustices, would they be able to speak about the unsettling experiences that occur at the hearts of their lives?


Deepa Mehta, through her Elements Trilogy, has given women a voice by illustrating how they have revolted against the injustices they face. Mehta undoubtedly allows for the vibrancy with something darker and more sinister, to reveal the reality faced by Indian women.


The focus of Part 1 of this series will be to introduce the plight of Indian women through the Trilogy and the highly controversial issues that Mehta raises. The Trilogy scrutinizes the way women are preyed upon and shackled by social institutions, such as being stripped and bartered by the patriarchy. In its totality, the Trilogy represents a powerful and significant cultural challenge to the dominant masculinist practices of the oppression, subjugation, and exploitation of women. Therefore, in this analysis, I will explore how Mehta’s depiction of these controversial topics encourages social change regarding the treatment of women in Indian society. 


Today, Bollywood films present a view of Indian life that portrays images of romance, tradition, and love of family above all else. Crammed with energetic music, vivid colors, and the beautiful portrayal of Indian practices and rituals, these films can easily lull their audience into believing that these depictions are accurate representations of Indian life or even the attitudes and beliefs of society at large. But the realities of life do not always measure up to the images that are presented in Bollywood films. For many, the echo of family loyalty and traditions leads to a second-class status and the becoming of being unwanted. Females especially, pay a high price simply for their existence, a price that many pay with their lives. While Bollywood films are captivating and exotic, the images that they portray are not always aligned with the realities of Indian life.


Mehta’s Element Trilogy is largely a collaborative work with the Indian author, Bapsi Sidhwa since Sidhwa is the literary mastermind behind the novels that Mehta uses as a basis for two of the films in her Trilogy. The film Earth is based on Sidhwa’s novels, Cracking India, and Ice Candy Man, while the film Water is based on the Sidhwa novel of the same title.


Fire (1996), the first film in the trilogy is a film that tells the tale of two middle-class Delhi sisters-in-law who find love in each other and turn away from their oppressive arranged marriages which place both figurative and literal shackles on them. When the film was first released in India, it was viewed as explosive, as it explored love between two women in a country that has no word for “lesbian.” Movie theatres screening Fire across Delhi and Mumbai were attacked by angry protesters who felt that the film misrepresented Indian culture. They swore that lesbianism did not exist in India, burned the film’s posters, and broke down theatre property. 


Earth (1998), the second film, is based on Sidhwa’s novel about the violent partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The film explores the brutal nature of men as they transition from civil human beings to something more primal due to religious and territorial conflict. The film is anything but light-hearted entertainment: from the beginning, it is shrouded in menace which becomes all-consuming as the film progresses. 


Water (2005), is the final film in the Elements trilogy. Set in the holy city of Benares in 1938, the film explores the lives of a barely visible group of women in Indian society – Hindu widows. These women, whose religion prescribes that they atone for their husband’s death by living the remainder of their lives as ascetics, wearing only white the color of mourning, shaving their heads to renounce vanity, and living in ashrams or spiritual refugees. Hindu widows are also allowed to practice a different form of wifely devotion from the more widely known sati, in which a woman throws herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre, burning herself to death. The Manussmriti, one of the sacred Hindu texts, explains that, in life, a woman is half her husband and therefore, in the event of his death, she is half-dead. The film therefore explores this inhumane way of life, and also highlights the issue of widowed child brides, as they are sent to these ashrams to live out the rest of their long lives under such conditions. 


In “An Accented Cinema; Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking” (2001), Hamid Naficy argues,

although the experiences of diaspora and exile differ from one person to the next, films which are produced by diasporic filmmakers exhibit similarities at various levels. These similarities, he maintains, arise as a result of a tension between a very distinct connection to the native country and the need to conform to the host society in which these filmmakers currently live. Deepa Mehta is a female filmmaker of the Indian diaspora whose films depict Indian women in contrast to their popular cinematic constructions and uniquely unconventional and controversial ways. These characters, at a crucial point in each of her films, transgress their oppressive nationalist representation through a reclaiming of their own bodies and sexual identities. 


Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Gayatri Chakravorthy Spivak’s arguments concerning the use of text, and particularly, narrative as tools for the representation and the empowerment of Third World women, women of color, and subaltern women, work towards illustrating how postcolonial feminisms articulate through specific movements of “accented” filmmaking such as that of women filmmakers of the Indian diaspora. According to Mohanty, in her essay entitled “Under Western Eyes” Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” (1988), some forms of Western feminist scholarship have conceived of “the “Third World Woman” as a singular monolithic subject” (quoted in Williams and Chrisman, 196). Thus, some of these texts have tended to assume that “Third World women” or “women of color” share a “common context of struggle […] against specific exploitative structures and systems” (Mohanty, 4). She further argues that “just as it is difficult to speak of a singular entity called Western Feminism, it is difficult to generalize about ‘third world feminisms’ (Mohanty, Russo and Torres, 4). Moreover, she further proposes that Western culture and feminism should be broadened and adapted to formulate a new type of feminist scholarship that incorporates the notion of gender and womanhood that originate outside of the Western world. 


Spivak, on the other hand, speaks of the notion of the subaltern. In many instances, she applies this term to the postcolonial Third World Indian Woman as a subject. In her much-cited article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), Spivak states that the subaltern cannot speak (Williams and Chrisman) and that the reason for this resides in the fact that the subaltern cannot be heard by those privileged groups of the First World, for


If the subaltern were to make herself heard – as has happened when particular subalterns

emerged, in Gramsci’s terms, as organic intellectuals and spokespeople for their communities – 

her status as a subaltern would have changed utterly; she would cease to be a subaltern.  

                                                                                               (Landry and Maclean)


Moreover, Spivak looks at the notion that the oppressed and barely visible groups may cease to exist if overt behavior is displayed. She indicates that a change in orthodox behavior cannot be achieved through conventional means without a break from fundamentalist thoughts and beliefs (Landry and Maclean). At this point, she distinguished between two forms of representation: that of representing and re-presenting, and Spivak indicates that the former refers to political representation when someone assumes the place of someone else and speaks for or on behalf of that person. The latter, however, refers to the self-portrayal of a person in one form or the other. Subsequently, these two forms of representation are complicated by nature and can therefore not be separated when they are applied to the notion of the subaltern. This could refer to the concept that irrespective of which form is used, the subaltern is taught not to speak and is rather forcibly molded into that of a suppressed ‘third world woman’ by the first form of representation and in the second, the subaltern’s repression of character results in a poor self-portrayal, resulting in the inseparability of the two forms (7). 


Furthermore, Mohanty’s and Spivak’s arguments relating to the use of texts and specifically narrative texts as tools for the representation and empowerment of Third World women, women of color, and women who are regarded as subaltern, work towards illustrating how feminists can articulate the challenges faced and moments of epiphany through a specific moment in a film. Naficy, for instance, proposes that there are certain similarities in the filmmaking styles of diasporic filmmakers (Naficy, 66). He argues that such similarities emerge as a result of tension between distinct connections to the native country and the need to conform to the host society which such filmmakers embody. He further states that the films created by these filmmakers manifest in the form of people or things which are representative of their homeland. For Mehta this manifests in the form of the oppression of women in her homeland, and the reliance that tradition has on this oppression. Therefore, the tension created by Mehta’s diasporic existence is thereby revealed through her unconventional depiction of Indian women in comparison to the popular cinematic portrayal of Indian women in India (Naficy, 67). 


At this point, it is essential to present an understanding of how both Mohanty’s and Spivak’s theories on feminism relate to an analysis of Mehta’s films. If Mehta is perceived as a diasporic Indian woman filmmaker whose films do not submit to the dominant modes of representation and popular cinema, it may be argued that she is allowing the Third World woman or subaltern woman (Indian female protagonists) to be seen and heard through her unconventional depiction of these characters. Furthermore, the depiction of these characters in an unconventional form becomes evident in the “border-crossing journey of identity” (69) that Hamid Naficy refers to and that the Indian women in such films undertake/undergo. While Mohanty does not specifically refer to Deepa Mehta’s films, she instead refers to diasporic women filmmakers. She explains that to understand what informs this “journey of identity” present in the film, Mohanty suggests that nation, race, and history need to be considered. While it must be noted that the writings of Mohanty and Spivak do not relate to the study of film or cinematic practices, their ideas are important because they provide appropriate strategies of analysis to be used when reading Mehta’s female protagonists. In other words, the narrative construction needs to be considered race, gender, geography, and history. 


Traditional Hindu Indian society has maintained strict rules and regulations that are to be religiously followed by Indian women, and their lives are thus defined primarily by the three important roles that they play, as daughter, wife, and mother. The Manusmriti, which is an ancient Indian Brahmanical text, has extensively influenced the values, morals, and beliefs of Indian society. Furthermore, according to this text, a woman’s life is never her own. Rather, a woman is always regarded as being dependent on and devoted to the men in her life; men are represented in the three important roles of father, husband, and son. Additionally, she is expected to always be cheerful, hardworking, specifically regarding domestic affairs, and obedient (Gokulsing and Dissanayake, 75-76). Often such virtues and principles have been uncritically adopted as rules to govern the lives of Indian women. 


Deniz Kandiyoti’s article entitled “Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation”, argues that Indian nationalism has overstepped its role in communal identities, and these ideas are closely tied to ideas surrounding femininity. Furthermore, it may be argued that Indian nationalism has worked towards containing women by using them as pawns to uphold and preserve age-old Indian or Hindu values and beliefs in the service of promoting nationalist ideals. As a result, the individuality of women has been considerably restricted, and these tried and tested behavioral norms have been depicted and expressed as the average behavior of women in popular Indian films. 

Furthermore, the particular significance of these films lies in the fact that “women who seek to live by traditional norms find happiness, while those who dare to transgress them are punished and victimized…” (Gokulsing and Dissanayake, 76). Mehta’s films, however, subvert this construction of Indian women. Rather, the women in her films reject the restrictions of accepted behavior and take control of their own lives and bodies.


Part One of the topic was to introduce Mehta’s topics, next time, we’ll dive deeper into the books and films themselves. 


Have you watched or read any of the Elements Trilogy?


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