Distilling Water

26 mins read

When watching Deepa Mehta’s new film, Water, audiences should see it as the visible triumph of something many said couldn’t be done. It’s a film that was violently derailed by right-wing Hindu fundamentalists during inception, then finally brought to fruition five years later. Mehta has created a poetic, daring, moving cinematic vision that tells hard truths its enemies would rather it didn’t, in full color, on a big screen.

But here’s an interesting further twist to an already-fascinating story. It’s entirely possible that Water, through its very existence—hotly debated and fought against outside of Canada, firmly developed and supported within—may yet manage to redefine the indefinite yet somehow degrading standards by which we have, so far, judged a film to be truly “Canadian.”

“Five years ago,” says Deepa Mehta, “I didn’t really feel like a Canadian, but I do now. Because without Canada, without me being a Canadian, this film wouldn’t have been made. And this film being made has become…well, everything.”

When Water was chosen as the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2005 opening gala, Mehta thanked everyone involved for helping her widen the potential definition of a “Canadian” film, for recognizing that Canadian films can also be made by people with brown faces about people with brown faces, and—perhaps most importantly—in places other than Canada. She elaborates: “What gets funded, and why? What is considered ‘valid’ or not? These are the questions which seem to be getting bigger and bigger, louder and louder, the further we move into the 21st century. The idea that all Canadian films must only be either in French or in English is detrimental, even insulting, to those of us whose first language is neither French nor English…whereas by choosing Water, these boundaries and definitions are pushed, and our stories—our multicultural stories—are affirmed.

“I think my impatience with the current system might have started when I found out that Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner couldn’t get funding from Telefilm, which I personally couldn’t believe—here’s this film that goes on to represent Canada world-wide, to win the Golden Camera at Cannes, at which point everyone wants to claim it, to have a part in it. Which just brings us back to the main truth: If you’re Canadian and your producer is Canadian then it’s a Canadian film, no matter what—no matter where it’s shot, no matter what it’s about! To pretend otherwise is such a bloody waste of energy, like constantly walking a minefield, and worse yet, it gets nothing useful done.”

Harsh words? Perhaps. But not unexpected in their directness, especially not from a woman whose primary reaction to having her original sets burnt down in 2000 and her film denounced to the press—not to mention losing 80 percent of her budget, already so tight she’d had to mortgage her house in order to get the movie up and running— was to continue her fight to make Water under the right conditions, finally succeeding in Sri Lanka, in 2004.

India had turned its back on Mehta, refusing to guarantee safety for her film shoot, due to a fundamentalist Hindu coalition led by the right-wing party Raksha Sangharsh Samiti (RSS). Says Mehta: “The worst thing was the sheer misinterpretation of it all, how helpless you are in that arena, facing fundamentalists. You’re fighting something that has such inherent force and bullheadedness, that is so completely myopic, that it completely lacks any ability to engage in reasonable debate. And I’d never come up against anything like this before, at least not to such a degree, and all I could do— literally—was to stand there and watch everything I’d worked for be swept away. Very quickly, it stopped being about the film at all, which was very disheartening.

“I’d come from a sort of liberal left- wing background, one in which people argued their cases with logic and compassion. But this was purely and absolutely about sentiment, with logic not even entering into it: ‘Don’t you know that you’re hurting us, don’t you see how you’re insulting us?’ Whereas I knew that copies of the script had been leaked and then rewritten, and that they had no idea what I was really trying to do, or even what I was doing. They simply had their projections, their assumptions and that was enough to destroy an entire production.”

Water deals epically yet unsentimentally with the prickly subject of how widows are (still) treated in India, where sacred texts condemn a woman who dares to remarry to “be reborn in the womb of a jackal” for cheating on her dead husband. The story takes place in 1938, in the holy city of Benares, on the river Ganges. Chuyia, the main character (played by Sarala, who’s never acted before and doesn’t seem to be acting now), is nine years old and doesn’t even remember getting married when her husband—at least three times her age— suddenly dies. Before she can even take in this turn of events, her head is shaved, her possessions burnt; dressed in white, Chuyia is dumped by her own father on the doorstep of a communal “home” run by widows, for widows.

Water was my first concept for [a feature],” Mehta explains. “I was shooting a TV movie in Benares and was exposed to Hindu widows, their ashrams, the hordes of them coming for their moksha, to die by the side of the river and gain their salvation—and this was in 1991. And I wanted to do a film exploring their lives. Why set it in the 1930s? Because as I began to write the script, the main character turned out to be a child widow, and child marriages are no longer quite as prominent as they were then…which is not to say they don’t happen any more, because obviously they do, just that they aren’t as common as they once were. Also, it became about the awakening of the Nationalist movement in India, under Gandhi—the idea of a ‘New India’ that embodies not just freedom from the British but also freedom from traditions which may have been relevant 2000 years ago, but which are not relevant now.”

Ironically, during the initial Water scandal, one of the complaints made to the Indian press by Sri Mr. Sudarshan, the head of the RSS, who had formed a new wing, the Kashi Sanskrit Raksha Sangharsh Samiti or KSRSS, specifically to target Mehta, was that “breaking up the sets was far too mild an act, the people involved with the film should have been beaten black and blue. They come with foreign money to make a film, which shows India in poor light because that is what sells in the West…And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them.” (The Week magazine, India, Feb 13th, 2000).

In the current version of Water, the widows’ ashram is mainly populated by middle-aged to geriatric inhabitants, living in poverty and desperation under the rule of two senior members. Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a good Hindu of unshakable faith, spends her days scrubbing away her “sins” in the tide, forever trying to atone for whatever it was she did to make her husband die. On the other hand, her partner Madhumati (Manorama) is a cynical tyrant who pays their rent by pimping out beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray)—who came to the home when she was Chuyia’s age—to any rich Brahmin who asks about her. These “good” men purport to have a philanthropic interest in the sorrowful status of widows, who are treated like complete pariahs: forbidden to eat fried food, forbidden to grow their hair, routinely accused of “defiling” anyone they might inadvertently touch. (“Now I’ll have to wash again!” one grumpy woman complains to Kalyani, after literally running into her down at the riverside.)

When Kalyani attracts the attention of Narayan (John Abraham), an idealistic Brahmin follower of Gandhi who wants to marry her even after he finds out about her sideline in prostitution, Chuyia rejoices. It seems as though her oddly decent, possibly simple, Krishna- worshipping friend will actually rise above her ill-fortune and “live like the lotus flower, untouched by the filthy water it floats in.” Better yet, if Kalyani can do it, who’s to say they won’t all be able to do the same someday?

“Was Kalyani’s prostitution the plot element that people found particularly offensive?” I ask Mehta. “Well, the thing is that nobody had read the script, so what they were ostensibly objecting to had no resemblance to what the movie was actually about. People would say: ‘We object to the idea of a Brahmin widow falling in love with an Untouchable’— Kalyani and Narayan, you see? And never mind that Narayan is also a Brahmin, let alone the idea that if he was an Untouchable, that that would be the thing in the script which you chose to object to! Or the other thing I heard over and over was: ‘But Hindu widows really have a very good life’…They objected to the idea that I would be exploring and puncturing this lie, that I would be portraying the way they live realistically, instead of politely. And I’m hardly the only spokesperson for widows in India, by the way. Many other people have spoken out on this issue, including the last President’s wife.”

Indeed, it’s possible to argue that the ferocity with which extremists attacked Water ’s production might be a direct byproduct of the response to Mehta’s 1996 film Fire , the first entry in what has become known as her “Elements Trilogy.” Politicians who couldn’t bring themselves to say the word “lesbianism” roundly denounced the movie in which two neglected Hindu wives begin a love affair with each other.

“Why does the story revolve around a Hindu family?” radical Hindu politician Bal Thackeray asked the newspaper The Pioneer, immediately after Fire hit India’s cinemas in 1998. “Why has the filmmaker named the main characters Sita and Radha [after leading Hindu goddesses worshipped all over the country]? Could not the filmmaker have named them Shabana, Saira or Najma [all Moslem names]? Fire may have received fourteen international awards, but will anyone deliberate on the harm these people are doing by ushering in a wretched culture?”

Fire was withdrawn from circulation after protestors tried to burn down the movie houses that dared to screen it. Mehta’s second film shot in India, Earth, a purely historical piece adapted from a memoir by acclaimed author Bhapsi Sidwa, dealing with the violence surrounding Pakistan’s partition from India, has thus far drawn no protest from anyone.

“After Fire, I made a very soft target,” Mehta agrees. “It wasn’t necessarily a backlash, but the climate in India at that time was such that they definitely wanted examples. The far right traditionalists had made their political bread on the idea of cleaning out the undesirables and anti- Indian elements, and I was immediately lumped in as part of that impulse. You have to understand that at the same time they were destroying my sets, the same people were trashing stores which sold Valentine’s Day cards because Valentine’s Day is a Western invention imposed on India, or burning paintings because they didn’t agree with the painter’s political opinions, no matter what the paintings were of. It was all supposed to constitute a show of strength and efficiency, to prove that people were right to vote them into government, and given the results, I can only suppose that it did; we had permission to shoot in Benares, but that just didn’t seem to matter—they went ahead and did it anyway and nobody objected.”

The KSRSS/RSS campaign quickly turned into an almost surreal litany of outright anti- Water stunts. Two takes into the first shot of the movie, a protester took a boat out into the middle of the Ganges, drank poison, tied a rock around his waist and jumped into the water, yelling that Mehta (and her film) made him do it. He was rushed to hospital, and survived. Days later, the press revealed the man was a professional, often employed by various political parties to attempt suicide “because of” hot-button issues. Though filming stopped immediately, eleven activists threatened to set themselves ablaze if filming resumed; effigies were burned, the secretary of the KSRSS was on a hunger strike, and there were death threats and bomb scares aplenty. Finally, there was the burning of the sets, which caused over half a million dollars worth of damage. No arrests were ever made for the initial vandalism and Mehta, who continued to lobby for government aid, was eventually threatened with arrest for “aiding an attempt at suicide,” and forced to leave Benares.

She shakes her head. “Afterward, I spent two months immediately looking for an alternative location because the idea of simply stopping production altogether was so foreign and wrenching to me…Quickly, I realized that this was becoming about politics rather than about making the movie that I had always intended to make. I decided that it was better to abandon the project as it existed at that point, and wait until I could really say that when I did it I was doing it because I wanted to, not because of any exterior pressure: It would be about action, not about reaction to what had just happened.” She pauses. “And that was the right decision. But it was very, very hard.”

As it happens, her precipitate return to Canada turned out, in the long run, to be the best possible cure for Mehta’s bad case of directorial interruptus. She made Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), a sweet- natured not-exactly-parody of Bollywood romantic conventions set in downtown Toronto, then moved straight on to a proudly work-for-hire movie adaptation of Carol Shields’ novel The Republic of Love (2003). Five years passed. But Water remained firmly at the head of her creative queue…and when the opportunity for another shoot finally presented itself, Mehta took it.

“Of course, it couldn’t possibly be the same movie,” she says. “The girl I’d first cast as Chuyia was twelve by the time I came back, and everyone else had long since moved on. But it felt right, it had percolated…I thought: ‘I feel ready.’ We’d already been trying to get financing, to look at what it would take to see it through. When all this had happened the first time ’round, David (Hamilton) being the producer, was just as traumatized as I was, and he also wanted his money back! So he made sure everything was as available for us as soon as possible, within reason—really, though, we weren’t looking for all that much. Even an extra ten days is a huge luxury, when you’re used to shooting a film in thirty days.”

Her daughter Devyani Saltzman, who had been an eighteen year-old third assistant camera operator on the original shoot, joined Mehta on the resurrected Water. Devyani’s uncle Dilip Mehta, also usually a still photographer, is responsible for Water ’s stunning production design. The result is all the more amazing when one considers that this particular job, his first ever as production designer, required him to build, detail and age a believable Sri Lankan version of one of India’s oldest, and most recognizable, sites of worship.


“Devyani wrote a book tracing the journey of Water, and our journey too,” Mehta tells me, “…our personal relationship as mother and child. (The two had been estranged after Mehta’s divorce from Paul Saltzman, Devyani’s father.) It’s called Shooting Water [and is now published by Key Porter Books], and I’m very proud of her. But don’t get the idea that it was a very intimate shoot just because I had relatives working with me. There was a full regular crew, though I’d worked with them all before on Fire and Earth —and Water, too, actually. So they certainly had the same investment in the project that I did, and I think it was a catharsis of some sort for all of us when we finally called ‘wrap’ on that last day.”

After all the drama—at the height of her troubles, no less a personage than George Lucas surprised Hollywood by taking out a full-page advertisement declaring his full support for Mehta, as well as forfeiting any future work in India—the true story of Water is that of a dream fulfilled, a defeat negated. When it comes, the film’s denouement is heartbreaking yet hopeful, and the restraint that Mehta shows throughout is amazing. The RSS were right, in a way: this could have been a lurid melodrama, if it were ever allowed to slip over the all- important line. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, we simply draw our own conclusions while the river flows on in the background, washing everything—and nothing—away.

Says Mehta: “It’s not like any other film I’ve ever made, because there’s so much joy and pain attached to it. But as with the Ganges, it seems as though there was always a current involved here that you just can’t fight…you simply have to give yourself up to the water, float along and see what happens, where it takes you. And in a way I’m glad we couldn’t shoot it in India because the reality of Benares would have overwhelmed the story—it really would have been too exotic to be globally available. This exists in a sort of parallel dimension, a dream version of the city that is authentic but simple, in which the characters never had to fight against the location in order to make themselves seen; it’s a world of little details that focuses on the performances, not the backdrop.”

She pauses. “I’m just so glad I’ve got it out of my system, so satisfied with the result that in a way, I almost feel I could just retire. But needless to say, I won’t…” …not while there are still other boundaries to break, other movies to make—in Canada, India, or anywhere else her filmmaking fancy might yet take her.

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