Sunday, March 11, 2007

Water: Movie Review, and the politics!

About the film..

Water is a beautifully shot film which holds a mirror to the Hindu Society whose laws and customs condemned women to a closeted and colorless life. It traces the life of an eight year old girl, Chuyia (Sarala) in India of 1938, who after she becomes a child widow, is abandoned by her parents in a widow Ashram. In the Ashram she is taken under the wings of Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who acts as a check against the excesses of the domineering House Mother.

The film revolves around the life of its oppressed inmates who are bound together by misfortune. Chuyia also befriends Kalyani (Lisa ray), another child widow whose astonishing beauty now turns out to be her curse in youth. Forced into prostitution to support the Ashram, Kalyani finds love in a young law student Narayan (John Abraham) driven by Gandhian idealism and willing to offer her a second chance in life. The story of the lovers predictably ends in a tragedy. Gandhi and the social change that he symbolizes remains a recurring theme for the characters in the film. The story ends fittingly with a defining moment where, Shakuntala hands over Chuyia to Narayan traveling with the rest of Gandhi’s followers in a train carrying Gandhi himself.

Water manages to showcase the fury of women against the unjust patriarchal tradition with beautiful performance by Seema Biswas and the child actress Sarala. Lisa Ray fills the screen with her ethereal beauty even while playing a demure widow and performs adequately in the role of a dignified woman wronged by fate. John Abraham plays his role with conviction. The background music by Mychael Danna and songs by A.R.Rehman lift the movie to a higher level. In all, this a good film recommended for those who like meaningful films.

and its Oscar nomination glory!...

Western media has dwelt at length about how the film was not allowed to be made in India. For the film maker eager to sell her film to a foreign audience, stories of such opposition and of mentor George Lucas ensuring the Film’s completion, helped to add to the film’s appeal. Any westerner, who watches this powerful film, after reading in the deservedly positive movie reviews about how the film was banned in India, may understandably leap to a conclusion that India is governed by Manu’s laws.

In reality, most of the so called vocal opposition was by right wing parties and activists who inhabit the societal fringe. The ranting Cameraman conveniently skips the pertinent question raised by the RSS head about why Deepa Mehta picks up only those issues with potential for sensationalizing the ills of Indian Society. Deepa Mehta displays no eagerness to look at the evolution of India and understand issues from a perspective. Rather she comes across as someone who hand picks (and in this case lifts!) stories that cater to the sensibilities of her target audience in US and Canada. This, along with the Canadian Director’s Punjabi roots, offer clues as to why her next film is on the Komagata Maru incident. Unfortunately, she is not the first or will even be the last to earn her reputation by packaging the pathos in India. This makes her, despite her directorial skill, prone to be criticized as a “creative hit (wo) man” eager to reinforce the western stereotypes about India.

It also explains why other issue based films like Provoked, Bandit Queen and Fire (which coincidentally condemn patriarchal traditions or India, depending on your perspective) achieve greater visibility there than the well meaning efforts from mainstream Indian cinema like Rang De Basanti or Lage Raho Munna Bhai. After watching this film I am convinced its Oscar nomination tells more about what the Americans like to watch than about great cinema.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Dowry and the Indian Society

The Census 2001 statistics reveal that there are 35 million fewer females than males. Female feticide is particularly rampant in rich states like Haryana and Punjab. The recent Economist blog sums up the attitudes of those indulging in female feticide in the words of a good doctor as follows

"Of my 10 first cousins in Punjab, no one has had a daughter in 10 years," he says. "You hope someone else would be stupid enough to produce a girl but not you."

What drives people to kill the female fetus? One of the respondents to that article offers an economic analysis

“The problem is quite simple - children are an investment. You put some money into raising them and when they grow up you get some return out of them, whether this be financial or in terms of caring for you in your old age. As described above, when you raise boys, they bring you dowry when they get married and also stay at home to take care of you in your old age. When you raise girls, you have to pay for their dowry and since they go off to live with their husbands when married, they are not able to take care of you either. As it currently stands, boys offer a positive rate of return but girls offer a negative rate of return. Not surprisingly, investors (parents) are dumping all their assets of the latter and piling into the former.”

Another reason is that it is the son who performs the last rites in the Hindu ritual system. However, this “dumping of liabillities” logic is leading to a future that Manish Jha’s film “Mathrubhoomi — A Nation without Women” portends. The other question raised by that article is

“Given the growing scarcity of women, how can the parents of boys continue to demand such high fees (dowry)?”

Dowry is not unique to India. One of the famous instances of dowry was when King Charles the first of England was given the fishing villages of Bombay as part of the dowry by the Portuguese, a case of marriage as a union of nobility and colonial dominance.

One of the reasons dowry persists despite several legislations is because, the ability to marry the daughter to a superior male from the same jati or caste, is a matter of social prestige for the bride’s father. If the intention to gain a higher social image through marriage motivates the bride’s family, for the groom’s family, dowry denotes the value of social prestige and honor they wield in their community. This resulted in a vicious cycle, where most Indian males adhere to dowry practices even if they don’t admit publicly. Even in cases where dowry is not demanded, it is because there are greater economic and personal benefits than dowry to be had from girl’s parents (say “an influential father in law”) than because it is a social evil.

A change will only happen ,after the sacred status of marriage gets diminished, and modernity, education and new economic realities push people to look for spouses outside their castes, resulting in marriage becoming more of a social contract based on compatibility of individuals, rather than the economic contract it is now.