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Who is Beneath the Coloured Veil? | Part 2 | Who is Deepa Mehta? & Earth

In Part One of this series, we looked at how Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy introduces the plight of Indian women through her films. Through this Trilogy, Mehta 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.


In this Part, we will look at who Deepa Mehta is and delve deeper into her Trilogy. 


Deepa Mehta, born in Amritsar, India, in 1949, obtained both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Philosophy at the University of New Delhi. While studying abroad, she met Paul Saltzman, a Canadian filmmaker and producer, whom she later married. In 1973, she immigrated to Canada, where she lives with her daughter.


 As Mehta’s father was both a film distributor and a theatre owner, therefore, the film played an integral part in her life from an early age. However, she says, “By the time I was in university, I knew then that I wanted nothing to do with film! I had been saturated with it,”.  However, her interest in film peaked once she had completed both her degrees when her curiosity regarding the primary treatment of Indian women grew. She wanted to build a platform that challenged the conventional views of obedient Indian women, to give them a voice, and to indicate to the world that, by painting a picture of the tarnished reality of these women, she would be able to communicate her protestations to the public. She has indicated that every society or traditional value, whether in the East or the West, has an incredible impact on human behavior and how people come to be. 


Growing up as an Indian child, she was taught that the elements play a significant role in our lives. She believes that the elements nurture us but can also destroy us. She comments: “It’s their inherent power and their dichotomy that intrigued me: fire, for its conflagration; earth, for its solidity and water, for its fluidity,” Curiosity is an element that fuels Mehta’s art, a curiosity about the plight of oppressed women, in particular. In Fire, she explains how “[I]t was fascinating unraveling the whole exploration of traditional values and how they play on you.” Simply put, Fire is about the politics of sexuality, Earth is about the politics of war, and Water is about the politics of religion. 




Earth is a film about the 1947 partition, which ripped India at its seams and highlights and interrogates the issues surrounding “why war is waged […] why friends turn enemies, and why battles are invariably fought on women’s bodies. As the film is primarily based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India, the narrative is about Lenny’s comprehension of the turbulent events during the partition of the Indian continent into India and Pakistan. Still, the compressed world of a child’s vision is populated by a small group of people which provides a valuable microcosm through which Sidhwa and Mehta can convey the broader history of this dark period. The story of Earth occurs at this moment in Indian history, and it is told through the eyes of a polio-afflicted, eight-year-old Parsee girl named Lenny, who gives prominence to the experiences of her ayah (nanny), Shanta, in the narrative. Each of the women portrayed in the film is depicted at a different stage of self-realization that seems to have been catalyzed by the tense political circumstances of the period. 


The film first begins with several peaceful, beautiful images which are echoed by the enthralling musical score – such as the scene in which Dil Navaaz, the famous ‘Ice-Candy Man’ that Lenny is smitten with, teaches Shanta to fly a kite as Lenny watches on with great content and admiration. However, even such an innocent scene as this one is loaded with symbolism: Dil’s kite-flying is tinged with competition and violence, as the two female characters alert him that other kites may cut off his kite. They light-heartedly tease him when they point this out, but, Dil is fuelled by his desire not to be upstaged and momentarily forgets his gentle female companions as he aggressively cuts off the competing kites. This is a brief glimpse of the genuine violence that will soon spill over and contaminate the rest of the film.


Earth goes to great lengths to show the stability of pre-partition life by depicting family scenes, trips to secluded locales, and dinners with family and friends: only to cruelly ruin that peace and happiness in the second half of the film, which depicts the tragic loss of all beauty, and ultimately, life. The film becomes brutally serious when Dil awaits, late on Independence Day, at the train station, and a train from the Gurdaspur district arrives with hundreds of slaughtered and mutilated Muslims, including his sisters. 


Shanta, first and foremost, is a caregiver to Lenny. In this role, she is protective and very much adopts the role of a surrogate parent to the child. She often disciplines Lenny, who is very naughty. However, even though she is strict with Lenny, she is also soft, loving, and patient with the child. She is watchful and often concerned in a way that a mother would be. All of Shanta’s friends are lower working-class men of various religions (this is important to note, especially later in the film), and she is aware that, to them, she is a desirable woman. At some level, they are all in love with her: they are captivated and drawn to her, and it appears that she enjoys the affection and admiration that emanates from them. She is, however, still wary. Their attention is undivided, and it is almost as if she is worshipped, being showered with affection every time they see her, like a Goddess. They surround her, and one friend even stays that, when she is around, they are “like moths to a flame,” a phrase that alludes to the destructive position that Shanta occupies. Moreover, just as Shanta’s body is the ‘earth’ upon which most of the love narrative is fought, India is the ‘earth’ being found in the greater scheme of the film. 


The representation of women on Earth illustrates that the female body is something to be fought over. Mehta portrays her character, Dil Navaaz, as being fuelled by his emotions, he allows his anger and lust to consume him, and Shanta bears the brunt of this. His character portrays the horrors of India, in which men ‘rightfully’ claim a woman’s body as their own, to be pleased or disregarded. Furthermore, the film portrays women as being dispensable, alluding to women being pawns in a man’s chess game. 


Earth is a harrowing film, and the overwhelming feeling of dread stays long after you’ve turned the television off. I recommend watching this film, allowing it to uncover some of the horrors women face, especially in a world where their bodies are not treated as their own. 


Next time, we will look at Fire.

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