Friday, May 05, 2006

Fun With The Reviewers: Deepa Mehta's Water

You might have decided to skip this one, perhaps on the basis of Sajit's negative review on Sepia Mutiny from a couple of months ago. Or you might go with the positive reviews in half a dozen respectable newspapers (and USA Today) as well as the 88% reviewer approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and risk your $9.50 to support a highly respected Desi filmmaker. Personally, I plan to go see it.

Meanwhile I've been surprised by some culturally clueless and simply inaccurate comments from reviewers.

1. First, the hands-down most facile, offensive, goofy comment I've seen in any movie review this year comes from "Metromix," affiliated with the Chicago Tribune. At the tail end of an almost laughably abbreviated summary, the reviewer tries to gear up readers for the film with a fashion-oriented tagline: "Bonus: Gear up for that summer 'do: The widows all have buzz cuts."

"The widows all have buzz cuts." Wow. That one sentence couples the triviality of the film review business with a shocking level of ignorance. I know these folks have short deadlines for copy, but could they at least look up something on the subject of Hindu mourning rituals before publishing a review of a film on Hindu widows?

On the other hand, it might be offensive, but at least "All the widows have buzz cuts" is pithy and sharp -- the kind of outlandish thing you expect the "naughty" character in a Salman Rushdie novel to say.

2. Fundamentalism or Tradition?

Another oddity from some of the reviews is the abuse of the word "fundamentalist." "Fundamentalism" is pretty appropriate if you're referring to what happened in 2000, when RSS goons with the support of the UP government attacked Deepa Mehta's set in Benares, destroying her equipment. (The NDA government did nothing to punish any of the offenders; many people involved in the protests were party leaders and relatives of government ministers.) But "fundamentalist" isn't quite accurate to describe the setting of the film:

There is a tradition within fundamentalist Hinduism that when a woman is widowed, she has three options: (1) to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, (2) to marry his brother (if he has one and it is permitted by the family), or (3) to live in poverty in a group home for widows. Although Water transpires in 1938, an endnote indicates that this practice has not been entirely abolished in India. (link)

The reviewer flings around the word "fundamentalist" with abandon, but it's sloppy. The word doesn't fit the context of widowhood in 1930s India at all: "traditional Hinduism" or "Hindu custom" are phrases that would be more appropriate.

3. Who said anything about Sati?>

Check out these lines from the Washington Post review:

The subject is the issue of "widow wastage." Possibly no term exists in English to convey the cultural tradition; it's a kind of continuation, by less fiery means, of sati, the practice of immolating a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. As writer-director Deepa Mehta dramatizes it, when a man dies, his widow is a financial burden to all. Thus she is consigned to an ashram, a kind of rooming house/prison for widows. (link)

Huh? There is a kind of logical connection here -- widows' ashrams and Sati are both troubling, archaic practices -- but they are still two very different traditions with different symbolic meanings.

4. Depends on what your definition of "is" is>

The New York Times ran a somewhat unusual story about Water earlier this week, "Film Ignites The Wrath of Hindu Fundamentalists." Though the title suggests the controversy is occurring in the present, the actual article refers again to the sacking of Mehta's set in Benares in 2000. There is no current controversy over the film in India, because the film hasn't been released there.

Water is scheduled for a limited release in India (90 screens) in July, and there may well be are more protests, riots, or theater burnings (as in Mehta's earlier film Fire, 1996). This time I hope the central government won't just stand by and let "mob censorship" take its mindless toll.


anole said...

while i value your corrections and critiques of these reviews, your covert apologizing for these anti-woman practices is extremely unsettling. why in the name of fairness do you not write a condemnation of these hateful hindu "traditions." just because something is a tradition does not make it good for a society! the very tone and *word choice* of your comments ends up apologizing for the vicious mistreatment of women even while offering a caveat that labels the traditions "archaic" (wrong, barbaric, hateful--these seem more appropriate terms...and you are keen to appropriateness otherwise)..."oh it was a different time back then" seems like what you really wish to say covertly. in the case of the abuse of widows, it seems that those traditions are ACCURATELY labeled both fundamentalist and hateful towards women, be they practiced in the '30s or today. why not go on record with outrage at the practices themselves instead of covertly apologizing for them (and since you're so sensitive to the tone and sense of language you ought to be attentive to how you're coming across)? and by the way: i'm indian.

12:46 PM  
Amardeep said...


That is an extremely uncharitable misreading of my post. By no means does my "tone" here "end up apologizing for the vicious mistreatment of women." Rather, I am correcting misreadings of Indian religious and cultural practices in the media.

Please see the long comments thread on the Sepia Mutiny version of this post here (I probably should have indicated it was a cross-post). Hopefully my responses to various attacks from the Hindu right side of the political spectrum will clarify my position on practices such as Sati and widow confinement -- which I strongly oppose.

An earlier post where I talk about some of these issues (and express my disapproval) is here. Another post on personal law is here.

Overall, I believe my position on women's rights in India is pretty clear.

1:48 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

I share "anole's" outrage in condemning all religious practices that are exploitative, brutal or even just demeaning towards another human being.

I didn't read Amardeep's post as a covert apologia or cover up of widow abuse in Indian Hindu society. The scope of this particular post was limited to addressing a different issue. That of the western reviewers' inability to put some of the events in their proper historical context either due to lack of research (Sati and the exile of widows - two distinct methods of eventually "wasting" a woman)or a casually dismissive attitude towards noxious practices (humiliation of a shaven head as a "buzz cut".)

The plight of Hindu widows is one of the most shameful in India's history. Religion serves too often as a man made escape chute for exploitation, debauchery and cruelty. And it has been disproportionately cruel to women.
In Houston where Water has been released, the Houston Chronicle has an article about Deepa Mehta and Bapsie Sidhwa's collaborative efforts. In her interview, Mehta pegs the widows' plight simply as economic and sexual subjugation by a male dominated society.

8:09 PM  
Ruchira Paul said...

Amardeep (or readers):

A question. Not related to Water but to a new trend I have noticed in Indian movies - films being made in English.

I saw "15 Park Avenue" last night. I activated the English subtitles option for the benefit of my husband, expecting some or much of the dialogue to be in Bengali. It was unnecessary - the dialogue was nearly 100% English. Some of Aparna Sen's other movies, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Mr.& Mrs Aiyar (sp?) were in a similar vein - but somewhat less so than "15". Are others too making Indian movies in English? And why? To target a larger English speaking audience a la contemporary south Asian English literature? For an easier entree into the Oscar race? Or is this at last just an admission by the movie industry that English is as much an Indian "national" language as Hindi/Hindustani? I am not complaining, just curious.

1:27 PM  
Anonymous said...

I had heard Water was loosely based on a fiction novel that Mehta came across while doing research for her movie. Does anyone have any idea what the name of this book is?

3:30 PM  
Anonymous said...

there would be rioting and arson around the world if such things were written about islamic practices

12:52 AM  
Angry Brown Man said...

you should check out my post on this same topic. sorry for the earlier hostility, i do enjoy your blog a lot.

1:48 PM  

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