Cinema has always been known to have a certain impact on its audience. It is widely observed and accepted that cinema relays messages to a broad range of audiences like no other medium available. The modern era and technology have enabled man to communicate his thoughts, ideas, feelings, and emotions to not merely his friends, family, and acquaintances but to a worldwide audience that interprets these messages and builds various other connections through this sharing of ideas and ideologies.
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Hollywood, as Murray Smith suggests, is a multi-faceted creature. It is shaped by a combination of forces ranging from the most local and industry-specific detail to the scale of national or global social-economic movements (King, p. 2). It has become a long-standing emblem of quality and standard for cinema. All across the globe, the quality of films and production is compared to Hollywood which proves to be the yardstick against all works built for the big screen.
Whether they big-budget, action-packed, mega-starring movies or small-scale independent movies, Hollywood marks its significance anyhow. American cinema has used the forum of performing arts to translate many issues of great importance, such as women’s liberation, political freedom, social emancipation, psychological and philosophical debates, and many other psycho-social and geopolitical questions that run through the masses. These developments are not recent.
It is not as though the producers have suddenly begun making films that spout social and psychological awareness. During the period of the Great Depression, Hollywood made some of its most explicit political films, high on political content as well as intent. Other films were less overtly political but raised serious issues. Still, others indirectly addressed the socio-psychological concerns of the era as popular genre films, including horror movies, musicals, westerns, costume dramas, and films about gangsters, G-men, prisons, and liberated women (Christensen & Haas, p. 74).
Indian cinema however finds itself to be another story altogether. Starting from the point where it was deeply influenced by its cultural origins of music and musical anthologies of stories that streamed together to form what the West can probably categorize as a ‘musical’, Bollywood, which is the dominant global term to refer to the prolific Hindi language film industry in Bombay, is characterized by music, dance routines, melodrama, lavish production values and an emphasis on stars and spectacle (Ganti, p.3).
It is targeting no social issues or discussions of psychological complexities, rather it is the food for weekend entertainment, filling the appetite of the imagination and fantasies of a country that is gradually finding its ways to progress.
The Bombay industry produces about 150-200 films a year. Feature films are produced approximately in 20 languages in India and there are multiple film industries whose total output makes India the largest film-producing country in the world. Even though Hindi films comprise 20 percent of the total production, they are the ones that circulate nationally and internationally and dominate the discourse of Indian cinema (Ganti, p. 3).
It continues to grow on the foundation of masala flicks that are usually “remakes” of recent hit Hollywood blockbusters or romantic comedies. What is interesting is that Indian cinema finds a great appeal in its audiences. The Indian movie-goer is completely satisfied by the silver screen productions which make big bucks every year for Indian movie moguls. If noted generically, it is a very cute, happily-ever-after story.
Regardless of quality, quantity, and intellectual stimulation that is promoted on the giant billboards, Bollywood continues to impact a grand population of almost 1 billion people; 63% are of the movie-going age, which is 14-64 (CIA Factbook, n.p.). It’s a pleasant sense of balance. The producers churn out more and more commercial hits every year and masses continue to love endorse and worship these productions.
Once in a while, however, along comes to a black sheep that threatens to shake this balance out of its composure. Deepa Mehta, critically acclaimed and controversy-laden Indian-based, Hollywood-reared directed, has been just that black sheep that has sent mainstream Bollywood out of whack. By taking the classic elements of an American independent film, with a low budget and a striking issue targeting a particular social group each time, Mehta has proven that her amalgam of Hollywood background and pathos for the Indian soil has given her all the controversy Bollywood could have taken from her.
Hollywood independent filmmakers are experts at making films on tiny budgets, a skill that eludes big Hollywood studio executives. These executives spend millions to make the broadest appeal films possible. The results are few hits with plenty of boring bland misses (Lieberman & Esgate, p. 60). Mehta did just that. She could have worked on a big commercial buck-earning project with any big production house of India, yet she chose to restrict herself to a small budget that only allowed her to do so much. She knew that independent films tell stories that might only appeal to a very narrow audience. Studios pass on niche stories that lack commercial appeal.
However, since the potential audience for independent films is smaller, it is even more difficult to get them into the theater. One of the most unique aspects of the independent filmgoer is that he/she enjoys discovering a movie for him/herself. The independent audience does not like in-your-face marketing. Independent marketers are challenged to reach their audience without their audience knowing (Lieberman & Esgate, p. 61).
Mehta’s works provide the same essence as each movie in her elements’ trilogy was targeting a certain cross-section of audience which would have made it difficult for it to have a ‘grand opening’ and a plausible market that could make her as popular as any other icon in the industry.
The movies were about specific social issues that ran through a certain portion of society, more specifically women, and given the ‘explicit’ material of her movie, it was easily deductible that not every woman in India, a struggling, underdeveloped economy and modernization-deprived society, could have easily accepted Mehta’s bold messages as it would have been accepted as people in the United States accept an independent, socially catalytic movie. Her in-your-face strategy was not regarding her marketing appeal, rather her social issues’ awareness which she claimed to have spread through her films.
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In the United States, independent films are ostensibly the product of a more artistically creative process. Such productions have come to be increasingly important in the film industry, particularly since the 1980s when independent films like “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985) and “El Norte” (1983) demonstrated that small non-Hollywood movies could turn a profit. Every year hundreds of these small films are produced and released in hopes of recreating the success of previous independent breakout successes like “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “The Usual Suspects” (1995) (Christensen & Haas, p. 57).
Deepa Mehta does not aim to follow the same breakout success pattern. Her target was never to enter the mainstream market with these films “Water” and “Fire” as she has already worked on big-budget films with an international and national collection of artists. For these ventures Mehta’s prerogative seemed to be quite clear: she was a woman on a mission. Her influences were decidedly Hollywood since nothing of this sort had ever been ventured in Bollywood before.
Teaming up with Giles Nuttgens, Colin Monie (who had edited the Magdalene Sisters) and David Hamilton, Mehta’s subject matter may have been decidedly Indian and Hindu-based, but her influences and work continue to be shadowed by a Hollywood influence. It does help, however, that Water fared well on her international box offices (example, Canada). Mehta has been deeply influenced through her career by the symbolic organizations in her faith as well as the classic dramatic elements of the work she has done as a director in Hollywood. Her first feature film “Sam and Me” was about an unlikely friendship between two outcasts (Official Website, n.p).
This plot reenactment only helps the audience revisit the theme of Earth, Water, and Fire which also orbit around unlikely friendships. Mehta continued to direct in connection with Hollywood projects, including “Camilla”, a Canadian-UK co-production, and the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles for George Lucas. Mehta finally moved to home ground for the direction of her “Elements Trilogy” of “Earth”, based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel “Ice Candy Man”, “Fire”, the story of two Indian women living and surviving under societal pressures of a feudal Hindu setup, and finally “Water” representing the life of widows living in India.
Her first movie, “Fire”, is the story of two women living under the repressed environment of feudal India. The two women find love within each other which develops into a sexual relationship. Mehta’s crucial message was that she was not promoting homosexual love or heterosexual love, rather she was merely pointing out that dignity and self-worth are most important. By choosing a conflicting topic, picking a small segment of society, remaining well under budget, Mehta strived to form a perfect cliché of independent success. In a way, she was ‘independent’ in moving away from mainstream cinema which is currently very busy churning out box office hits for the 1 billion people in India. Mehta wants her films to stir audiences to thought rather than simply to entertain (Levitint, Plessis & Raoul, p. 273).
Mehta uses symbolic terms of “Fire” itself, which is a holy purifier in the Hindu religion. She also uses the character of “Biji” which symbolizes, according to critics, the picture of India as it was. She is “wizened, mute, helpless, carefully dressed and powdered each day, and carried around the room with a ridiculous little bell” (Morris, n.p.).
She represents a picture of what takes form under the demanding glare of modernity as it shakes the foundations of a civilization so deeply embedded with conventions and tradition. In a study of media responses to the film, Sujata Moorti (2000) argues that the controversy demonstrates the relationship between global modernity and local tradition. Moorti also believed that “Fire” provided the variety of interest groups to take up public positions on questions of national identity (Butler, p. 120).
Mehta’s movie “Water” was set in 1938 Colonial India, against Mahatma Gandhi’s rise to power, the plot unravels with an eight-year-old girl who is widowed and sent to live in an asylum built for Hindu widows. There she befriends another widow who is slightly older and enjoys her camaraderie. “Water” was a low-budget movie. According to an interview with Mehta, she reported that she was working under $2 million Canadian (Walsh, n.p.)
According to critics, the film was well-received although it evoked the ire of many extremist parties, especially of Bal Thackeray, the leader of the extremist Hindu group, Shiv Sena (Official Water Website, n.p.) who also had enough of a bone to pick with Mehta after her notorious “Fire”.
Needless to say, Mehta’s influence on Bollywood has remained only till the limit of hiring an all-Indian cast, whereas the background work continues to be of an international ensemble. Her influences from Bollywood are limited to her selection of the subject.
Her work speaks of a decidedly Western approach; as the controversy she sparked and the amount of talk the trilogies generated. Independent films that are free from the pressures of centralized ownership and demands of the mass media standards and protocol are freer to pursue their own variety of interests. Mehta’s projects were aimed in the same vein as they elaborated the sensitive issues, boldly strutted where no other production house had thought of venturing. Mehta’s ambition of promoting issues such as ‘self-worth’ and ‘dignity and awareness of what religion did or did not say, issued far from the consciousness of conventional Bollywood.
Butler, Alison. Women’s Cinema: The Contested Screen. London: Wallflower, 2002.
CIA World Factbook. “India”. 2007. Web.
Christensen, Terry, & Peter J. Haas. Projecting Politics Political Messages in American Film. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2005.
Ganti, Tejaswini. Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2004.
King, Geoff. New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
Levitin, Jacqueline & Judith Plessis, Valerie Raoul. Women Filmmakers: Refocusing. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Lieberman, Al, & Patricia Esgate. The Entertainment Revolution Bringing the Moguls, the Media, and the Magic to the World. Financial Times Prentice Hall books. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002.
Morris, Gary. “Burning Love: Deepa Mehta’s Fire”. 2001. Bright Lights Film Journal. Web.
Walsh, David. Hindu extremist campaign forces director Deepa Mehta to suspend filming in India. Filmmaker Speaks with the World Socialist Website. Web.
Water. A Deepa Mehta Film. Official Website. Production of the Film. TM & C Mongrel Media. 2007. Web.