November 1, 2005
Speaking Out of School
Although Bill Cosby delivered his notorious remarks about black society in front of a largely black crowd, the ruling complaint was that he’d aired our culture’s dirty laundry in public. But could his speech have been effective in any other place? If he’d been speaking at a mid-sized black church with no reporters present, was there any chance his comments would have carried outside the room?
The charge of airing dirty laundry has been levelled many times at director Deepa Mehta, although not often as violently as with her latest film, Water. The film concerns the plight of Hindu widows in parts of India, who to this day are sometimes relegated to poverty after the deaths of their husbands, unable to work or remarry. When Mehta first tried to film Water, a group of Hindu fundamentalists trashed the set, destroying all prints. The director spent years raising the money to shoot the film again under heavy secrecy in Sri Lanka.
Now, Water is complete (trailer), and the charges of cultural treachery are circling, even among those who might agree with the moral particulars of Mehta’s message. Read the comments on this Sepia Mutiny thread, and you will find some very valid criticisms of Mehta’s message and the way she delivers it. “Mehta thus does not engage with feminist concerns around dominant conventions of beauty, colour and feminine roles; rather, she reinforces them,” one commenter quotes from a review. “The shiny patina of exotica is what saves Mehta from being recognized as the mediocrity that she is,” another commenter writes.
The root charge strongly resembles that levelled against Cosby — Mehta’s playing up the culture’s dysfunction to curry favor with an audience outside of it. But put in this light, the charges have a potency the anti-Cosby remarks didn’t to me. Suddenly I can sympathize with all those white journalists who scratched their heads at that story and wondered, “What do I do with this?”
Given that Mehta’s Fire is one of my favorite pieces of LGBT cinema, I feel like I can defend that film from within my own cultural framework. But does any part of Water belong to me?
The film describes legitimate problems in India that demonstrably persist. The film is peddling the same tired, negative images of India that foreign reporters find when they drop in sniffing for a good story. Outside the cultural framework the film represents, do we have the right to cast judgment? And on whom do we cast it?