Elementary, not elemental

Posted on May 29, 2012


In her introduction to A Critical Study of Deepa Mehta’s Trilogy: Fire, Earth and Water, the author Manju Jaidka informs us that her “endeavour has been to produce a concise, focused study that avoids the bane of excessive jargon” – and in the next paragraph she speaks of the “chronotopic specificities of the stories that Mehta chooses to narrate.” Jaidka, while seeking to avoid the argot of academia, feels no compunctions about bandying a word like “chronotopic,” which instantly instills in the reader the feeling of being beset by the jargon of joyless academics. As proof, allow me to offer this analysis: For Mehta, “any outrage of the earth, as in times of war when there are forcible occupations, is synonymous with outrage against the female of the species. Woman, like the earth, is the oppressed mother-figure while the male predator rampages on. For a healthy state of affairs, woman needs to be free and in tune with the cosmic forces.”

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This insight comes not from a chapter on one of the three films under discussion but from the Preface, which, along with the Introduction that follows, fills out 33 of this volume’s 85 pages (not counting the index and other back-of-the-book baggage). This smallness of size is puzzling given the broadness of Jaidka’s aims, which are manifold – an introduction to Mehta; an overview of the traditional image of women in India and their representation on screen; an assessment of Mehta’s contribution to narratives of women’s lives; an examination of the ‘elemental’ films; an overview of the other films; and, finally, a personal look at Mehta. Jaidka observes that little academic work has been devoted exclusively to the study of Mehta, but she doesn’t do all that much to alleviate this apparent crisis, opting, instead, to skim through the films with a larded, expository writing style reminiscent of collegiate theses. (“This section focuses on Deepa Mehta’s film Fire which was originally made in English and later dubbed into Hindi.”) Beware the book that brings with it the itch to blue-pencil.

As for the chapters on individual films, Jaidka cobbles together other people’s (and newspaper) quotes and personal interpretation, and those new to these films will certainly find these narratives of use as an entry point, but it’s hard to endure page after page of protractedly earnest writing. From the chapter on Earth: “In the book, and also in the film, the cracking of a country is symbolically presented through the violation perpetrated on the Ayah who is significantly named Shanta after ‘peace’ – that elusive, utopic state of affairs that Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, aspired for.” Sentences like these suggest that the book is aimed at filling up shelves in the cinema sections of libraries in foreign universities, and even the chapter titled “Deepa Mehta: On a Personal Note,” which promises insights into the creator drawn through one-on-one conversations, has little that we don’t already know. “Born and brought up in Amritsar, Deepa Mehta graduated from Delhi University and moved to Canada in 1973.” Did such a slim volume need to thicken its pages with biographical detail available to anyone with access to Wikipedia?

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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