It was the opening film that set the tone for the International Film Festival of Kerala, IFFK 2005. Water, a Canadian film, directed by India-born filmmaker Deepa Mehta, is set in the 1938 of colonial India and examines the plight of widows through the eyes of the eight-year-old Chuiya who is sent off to a widow’s home on her aged husband’s death. The film shows the sexual exploitation of the widows at the hands of the local landlords and it attacks religion for furthering their misery than providing succour.
Many of the films that followed Water over the next week continued to focus on the problems faced by women and the injustices meted out to them, even as some of them celebrated the women’s resilience, strength, spirit and quest for identity. A majority of films in the competition section this year dealt with the mother figure, be it Stolen Life (Sheng Si Jie) from China, Hi Bi: Days of Fire from Japan, Bride of Silence (Hat muaroi bao lau) from Vietnam, I Love Cinema (Baheb el cima) from Egypt or Arizona Sun (Arizona Sur) from Argentina.
There was a retrospective on the versatile French actress Isabelle Huppert entitled Woman of Many Faces and a section called Beyond the Veil which presented the works of women filmmakers from the Maghreb region in North West Sahara that included the Islamic nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya. The local media was quick to liken the festival to “.an international summit on women’s issues” with men providing the “supporting cast”.
The woman’s point of view dominated the third Aravindan memorial lecture as well. The high point of the festival was the talk organised in memory of the great Malayalam filmmaker, G. Aravindan. This year the lecture was delivered by Margarethe Von Tratta, the feminist filmmaker from Germany. She talked of the place of women directors in filmmaking, their efforts to make a breakthrough and the stereotyping and clichés they have to constantly contend with, both in life and in cinema.
The gender sensitivity of IFFK comes as no surprise. In the last 10 years IFFK, despite its modest budget, has emerged as the leading film festival in India for viewing serious, artistic cinema. It attracts the most discerning and committed viewers in India , who are as passionate about cinema as they are about politics. No wonder it is also considered a liberal space for showcasing politically and socially volatile cinema. That was the reason why Deepa Mehta chose to show her controversial film, Water , at the IFFK. “Kerala and its cinema are both very progressive. Of late a lot of Malayalam films have been dealing with women’s issues,” she said.
Five years ago the vociferous demonstrations by the Indian right wing organization, Sangh Parivar, had aborted the filming of Water in the temple town of Varanasi in North India . Their objections to the film, fuelled by the leakage of an apparently distorted script, were to do with the perceived running down of tradition and religion. In the ensuing chaos Mehta lost valuable shooting time and about a million dollars. Much later she quietly shot the same film in Sri Lanka.
One of the Indian entries in the competition section, the Malayalam film, While It Rains Hard (Perumazhakalam), directed by Kamal, also deals with a widow, but here the relevant issues get drowned out in extra loud melodrama, the incessant rains outside eliciting as many tears from its perennially sad protagonists. The husbands of Razia and Ganga are working in the Gulf. Razia’s husband gets capital punishment for accidentally killing Ganga’s husband. The only way out for him is to seek forgiveness from Ganga. While having women as the central characters the film turns them into weeping willows rather than the women of substance that they are. Also the film’s overtly secular agenda, turning one widow into a Hindu and the other into a Muslim is a too pat and ham-handed interpretation of the Indian socio-cultural realities.
In comparison, another Indian film, Rituparno Ghosh’s Views of the Inner Chamber (Antarmahal) is a far more scathing and focused attack on patriarchy, feudalism and religion, albeit as exotic looking as Water. Much of the strength of the narrative, including the twist in the tale, come from the fact that it is inspired by Protima, a Bengali short story by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay. Decadent landlord Bhubaneshwar takes home a new, young wife Jasomati when his first wife Mahamaya fails to beget him an heir. Bhubaneshwar’s relentless, bizarre sex with Jasomati becomes a metaphor for oppression and holds the patriarchy up for ridicule. The clergy too gets satirised in the episode where the seductive Mahamaya tries to tease and titillate the family priest. She is a woman who is cloistered and suffocated yet has the spunk and playfulness to make extremely bold statements about her individuality. Such women may be confined to the inner chambers of the house but are free spirits in their own right.
It was quite fitting to also see an Indo-UK co-production about a woman filmmaker. Dreaming Lhasa, about Karma who travels all the way from New York to Dharamshala, Dalai Lama’s headquarter in North India, to make a film on the former political prisoners who had escaped from Tibet. Karma, who had never seen her homeland, wants to reconnect with her roots. As she hears the testimonials of the freedom fighters, goes through the political turmoil in Tibet and catches up with its tumultuous past, she also goes on her own journey of self-discovery, one in which she has to make tough choices, renegotiate relationships and emerge stronger. The film, quite deliberately, makes a pitch for the “Free Tibet” cause. But the woman too is as important as the politics of her homeland, as significant as the film she is making.