A david Hamilton Production of a film by Deepa Mehta

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It was once rumoured that Bal Thackeray was quoted as saying that the person he hates most in the world is Deepa Mehta. Thackeray is the leader of Shiv Sena, one of the most powerful right-wing Hindu fundamentalist groups in India and is reputed to have a stranglehold on everything that transpires within the massive metropolis of Bombay. This is a powerful and dangerous adversary and one must wonder what it is that Mehta did to raise the ire of the man who was named by a judicial inquiry as the provocateur of frenzied Hindu mobs that in 1992 burned Muslim homes and businesses and killed 1,200 in Bombay. The answer is simple: she made films which questioned the interpretations that current Hindu leaders were giving to the Sacred Texts and in particular as they related to the treatment of women.

Mehta's first run-in with Thackeray came during the 1998 release of Fire, the award-winning first film in her trilogy of the elements, which was followed by Earth in 1999 and finally by Water, which was completed in 2005. Using a politically correct mix of men and women and alerting the news media beforehand, Thackeray's so-called Shiv Sainiks (i.e. members of Shiv Sena) rampaged through a matinee show of Fire in Bombay, smashing glass and burning posters. The next day, theatres in New Delhi, Pune and Surat were similarly hit. "Is it fair to show such things which are not part of Indian culture?" Bal Thackeray, asked in a magazine interview. "It can corrupt tender minds. It is a sort of a social AIDS." Thackeray was referring to the lesbian relationship between the two main female characters in the film, relationships which he claimed did not exist in India. Every newspaper in India and many around the world including the New York Times carried coverage of these events and thus Thackeray achieved his objective of being seen as the protector of the Hindu faith. In spite of the fact that the Supreme Court ordered that troops be mustered to protect the theatres and armed guards be provided for director Mehta, the theatre owners were too intimidated to re-open Fire to the public. Fire became the highest-selling pirated DVD in India.

Mehta's next battle with the fundamentalist element did not occur until 2000 when a rioting mob of 2,000 attacked and burned the sets of the production of Water and issued death threats against the director Mehta and the actresses Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. This confrontation was organized by the RSS, another Hindu fundamentalist faction closely aligned with the Shiv Sena and the cultural arm of the BJP party, who were in power in New Delhi at that time. The Indian government publicly decried this effrontery to free speech and provided 300 troops to protect the production and heavily armed security for Mehta. This did not hinder the well-organized opposition to the film who, it was alleged, had a mole in the production office and found a way of tapping the cell phones of the producer and director. For two weeks the production held on in Benares, soliciting support from the local religious authorities and government, but to no avail. Mehta's effigy was being burnt in cities across the country daily, in each case covered broadly by the Indian media feeding onto the objectives of the perpetrators. Finally, following a protester's attempted suicide jump into the Ganges in opposition to the filming, the local government shut down the production under the issue of "Public Safety." During this period, support poured in from around the world, including a full-page ad placed by George Lucas in Variety encouraging Deepa to continue the fight. None of this unfortunately had any impact on the radical fundamentalists or the local government.

It took almost five years to put the production of Water back together and it was finally shot in Sri Lanka under an assumed name and strict code of secrecy.

Water is set in a house for Hindu widows in a Holy City in 1938 India and it is assumed by many that the living conditions of the characters in the film are not found in present day India. This is sadly untrue and the desire of the right-wing fundamentalist elements to partially hide this explains the vicious attacks on the production and the director.

The film is now complete but the struggle with the fundamentalist element is not. Mehta continues to receive calls from unknown men and women who offer "friendly advice" that she not release this film in the West as audiences there will not understand the complex religious and social order of India.


There are some images that become indelible in our minds. One such image that has stayed with me for 10 years is that of a Hindu widow in the Holy City of Varanasi in India. Bent like a shrimp, her body wizened with age, white hair shaved close to her scalp, she scampered on all fours, furiously looking for something she had lost on the steps of the Ganges. Her distress was visible as she searched amidst the early morning throng of pilgrims. She was paid scant attention to, not even when she sat down to cry, unsuccessful in her attempt to find whatever she had lost.

It was this image of a widow, sitting on her haunches, arms outstretched on her knees, head bowed down in defeat that became imprinted in my mind and led to the idea of a screenplay which was to become the film Water 10 years later.

I was in Varanasi directing an episode of Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a television series for George Lucas. As a part of prep, I spent early mornings at the banks of the Ganges trying to get a feel for the city that attracted pilgrims from all over India. Amongst them were Hindu widows who, because of convoluted religious beliefs, were relegated to a life of deprivation and indignity. They came to Varanasi to die. Dying by the banks of the Holy River guaranteed them instant salvation.

Though a Hindu myself, Hindu widows remained a bit of an anomaly to me until I started researching them for Water, the third film in my elemental trilogy of Fire and Earth. Their plight moved me enormously. These women lived out their lives as prescribed by a religious text that was nearly two thousand years old.

Water is set in India in the late 1930s when the practice of child marriage was still prevalent. Young girls were often wed to older men for economic reasons. When the men died, they left behind young widows who were farmed out to ashrams (institutions). Considered a financial burden by their families, this was generally the fate of most widows. I decided to follow an eight-year-old widow and her life in an ashram where her presence starts to disrupt and affect the lives of the other residents, particularly Shakuntala and Kalyani.

In the year 2000, armed with the requisite permissions and script approval from the government of India, we assembled the cast and crew of Water in Varanasi. After six weeks of pre-production, we started to shoot on the banks of the river Ganges. Two days into the shoot, what transpired next was unexpected and unprecedented. Overnight, violent protests by Hindu fundamentalists erupted in the city. Accusations of Water being anti-Hindu were cited as the cause of the film sets being thrown in the river, my effigy being burned, and protesters marching in the streets of Varanasi, denouncing the film and its portrayal of Hindu widows. Nobody had read the script. Bewildered by the turn of events, we tried to muster help from the state government who had given the script its approval, but to no avail. Amidst escalating protests and violence and personal death threats, we were forced to shut down production.

In retrospect, Water reflected what was taking place in India in some form or other; the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and high intolerance for anything or anybody that viewed it with scepticism; therefore, we were a soft and highly visible target.

To complete Water had become a personal mission, but it took four years before David Hamilton, the producer, and myself resurrected the project in Sri Lanka. To risk making the film in India again was dangerous and foolhardy at best. I had to recast. The luminous Nandita Das, the lead in Fire and Earth, had to be replaced by the younger Lisa Ray. Seema Biswas, of Bandit Queen fame, accepted Shabana Azmi's role as Shakuntala. John Abraham, a star from Bollywood would play Narayan, the young Gandhian idealist and the fragile widow Kalayani's love interest. For the role of eight-year-old Chuyia, I found a young girl in Sri Lanka. Sarala came from a small village near Galle. Though she had no experience in front of the camera, she was a 'natural.' The challenge was that she spoke neither Hindi nor English. Sarala learned her lines phonetically and I directed her through an interpreter and hand gestures. She was amazing.

Shooting in Sri Lanka was a breeze after our horrendous experience in Varanasi. Giles Nuttgens, who shot Fire and Earth, was behind the camera again. I think Giles is brilliant. Dilip Mehta did the production design. To create India in Sri Lanka was a daunting task. We decided not to even try to re-create Varanasi. To do so would have meant the budget going through the roof. Instead, our modest ghats were only a one-third of a mile long, peppered with the requisite Hindu temples. Colin Monie cut the film in Toronto. I had seen The Magdalene Sisters, which he had edited, and felt that he had the right balance of sensitivity and passion.

Now that the film is complete, I can look back on the journey it has taken to make it. The anguish, the death threats, the politics, the ugly face of religious fundamentalism - we experienced them all. Has it been worth it, I often wonder? Then the image of a widow 10 years ago surfaces in my mind, as she sits on the steps by the Ganges, her toothless mouth making gasping sounds of despair. I found out later that she had lost her only pair of spectacles. Without them, she was half blind.

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