Watering Down Water

Originally published on Satyam Online, 8 February 2000.

Even those of us of liberal political convictions must sometimes admit it. Something quite interesting happened in that majestic city by the Ganga this week. In times when it seems that politics is less about principles and ideas than about populism and pay-offs, when someone, anyone, takes a principled stand, it is touching.

Thus when the Sangh Parivar decides to blow up a few bombs to cock a snook at the nuclear monopoly of the great powers, it warms what is left of our nationalist heart. When they take out their ire against the arrogant moral universalism of Christianity by smashing a few churchs and torching a few missionaries, there is some pride in that defiance. Of course, such cynical vandalism is not about defending national sovereignty or our cultural integrity, as we all know. It is more about upper-caste vote banks and simple hatemongering. But we should be  equally aware that neither the nuclear powers, nor the Christian missionaries, nor Deepa Mehta and her snobby liberalism are blameless.

The Controversy over Water

This week the Hindu Right singled out the latest target of the saffron crusade, in Deepa Mehta’s abortive attempt to begin shooting the third installment of her series of films on India, Water. Through constant intimidation, extortion, and attacks, they forced the UP Government to suspend the shooting of the filmon law-and-order grounds. Throughout the controversy, we were treated to Mehta’s anger about how many millions of dollars she was losing everyday, how much she respected the culture of Kashi, and the complaint that the script had been cleared at the highest levels in Delhi. Similarly, Shabana Azmi, playing her favourite role as lecturer to the untutored masses, took the State Government and the District Magistrate to task for violating cultural tolerance, government procedure, and liberal freedoms.

If Shabana was hysterical then Mehta was stupid. She should have known that with the Bihar Assembly elections around the corner, beginning her film shoot at this time was inadvisable. Varanasi nearly touches the UP-Bihar border and has a large seasonal migration of Bihari labourers. The caste and communal politics of Bihar strongly reverberate in East UP, and the political winds of UP also blow down the Ganga to Bihar. For Mehta to descend on the City of Light with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment, crew, and all the glitter that is but the fantasy of the miserably poor people of East UP, was idiotic at this time. To do this in the name of Indian or Hindu culture was offensive.

Using India as a Backdrop

When her last film was premiered at the London Film Festival in late 1998, one of the production assistants for Earth –1947 had, with starry eyes, told me that these films were Deepa’s way of coming to terms with her ideas of India. I found this absurd, because Mehta’s films are hardly seen in India, and are more a chance for her to demonstrate her liberalism to Western audiences ignorant of India.

I saw Fire in the U.S. more than two years before it was released in India amidst much controversy. And while one must condemn the Shiv Sena’s smashing and burning of theatres, at the same time Fire dealt in cheap, essential stereotypes of machos, brahmacharis, or frustrated women turning to lesbianism within a joint family. Earth was little better in its narrative of Partition. Disgustingly elitist, it shows how decent and defenceless Parsis are encircled by the violent passions of the masses, and are left wondering at what has become of rationality. The protagonists spontaneously break out fighting while sharing a meal in a Lahore dhaba, because they know nothing more than temple bells and the azans of the local masjid.

India and Indian culture are as much a backdrop for Mehta’s condescending liberalism, as the Ganges and Kashi are used as a backdrop by the Hindu Right for their fascist political posturing. And if we are comparing their relative skills in appropriating cultures for their own purposes, then the Sangh Parivar won the day hands down.

Perhaps this is the wrong time to attack Mehta, given the dangerous inroads the khaki knicker-wallahs are making into the mainstream in the past few months. But she handed this highly-charged symbolic issue to them on a silver platter (or is it a brass thali?) She probably has as much to gain in terms of pre-release publicity for the film, as the bureaucrats and politicians of UP do in terms of threats and bribes, and the Hindu Right does in pre-electoral rabble-rousing.