Water, Earth, Fire

Water, Earth and Fire are three films by Deepa Mehta that have ignited controversy both religious and critical. The first kind sees them (rightly) as attacks on religious traditions (and, as often the case, confuses that with attacking religion); the second sees them as blunt instruments that fail to do justice to the complexity of social lives in colonial and post-colonial India.

I brought them with me to Italy to re-watch on long hot nights whilst waiting for the air to cool sufficiently to allow for sleep.

For the second kind of criticism, I have sympathy. Her worlds are drawn in black and white - we know whom to sympathize with and whom to deplore and the history is often badly drawn. There is a dinner party in Earth, for example, seeking to explain 'Partition' whose characters are constructed of cardboard after the manner of caricature; and, the way in which the inter-religious friends disintegrate in the face of the tensions of partition seem too hurried and ill thought out.

Yet with the first kind of criticism, I have less sympathy partly because they are equally adept at painting portraits in only black and white and, therefore, should recognize a sister in arms (even if an enemy) but mostly because, at heart, there is an attempt to sensitively portray a clash between 'religious tradition' and 'conscience'. If 'Earth' and 'Fire' do this clumsily, 'Water' the last film made in the series, works beautifully, perhaps because in choosing the treatment of widows, she has chosen ground that wins our sympathy immediately because the injustice of their treatment is so clear (it is not obscured by the complex ground of sexuality and gender (Fire) or the politics of Partition (Earth)).

At heart, the film is a struggle between 'conscience' and 'tradition' and is aptly caught at the end when Gandhi briefly appears. He is at the railway station having been released by the British (it is 1938) and declares that he was brought up believing that God is Truth but had come to realize that Truth is God. God is so often held captive by those for whom religious tradition is a happy substitute for ever meeting God. The truth demands a careful, often painful, sifting and testing against the challenges of both compassion and justice; and, speaks out of and into a stillness and quiet we rarely allow ourselves; and, as any good Quaker knows, builds slowly, is tested in community and requires love. You can see why certain adherents to religious tradition find conscience so difficult!

In spite of flaws, Mehta is on the side of the angels.


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