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Deepa Mehta grew up in New Delhi and moved to Canada in 1973 for a commonplace, nonpolitical reason: She married a Canadian. The 56-year-old filmmaker—in Washington for screenings of her new film, Water, at Filmfest DC, Amnesty International, and elsewhere—says she didn’t really think about her relationship with her adopted country until she returned there from India in 2000 after her failed first attempt to shoot Water.
“If India gives me the passion to explore its ideas, or gives me ideas that I feel passionate about,” she says she came to realize, “Canada gives me the freedom to express them. For me, it’s a very happy marriage between Canada and India.”
Water is set mostly in an ashram for widows, who under traditional Indian teachings are impure and cannot remarry. That stricture applies even to those like the story’s central character, Chuyia, who were married as children and who never even met their husbands. The film is set in 1938 but depicts a system that has not entirely vanished from India.
The movie is the third in a trilogy, after 1996’s Fire and 1998’s Earth, both of which also treated themes that are controversial in India. The first film, in which two neglected sisters-in-law begin a sexual relationship, elicited considerable outrage. But that reaction was mild compared to what happened when Mehta went to the sacred city of Varanasi to film Water.
“Before you make a film in India, you actually have to submit the script to the government,” explains the writer-director, who’s wearing a glossy black blouse and a long patterned scarf that look very Indian, and olive-green cargo pants that seem, well, very North American. “They go through it with a fine-toothed comb—to ensure, I guess, that there’s nothing derogatory in the script to India or Indians. And only then do they give you permission to shoot in India. We submitted the script. It was a right-wing government in power then, and they said everything’s fine. We got the stamp of approval, and off we went to shoot in Varanasi.”
Next stop was the provincial government. “They want to meet you and talk to you about it. So we got their local permission as well. And also, because Varanasi is a holy city, there are certain very powerful priests in the city. And I met all seven of them, showed them the script, and got their blessings. They all knew what the script was about. So we did everything that we were supposed to, and we were in pre-production for six weeks. Six weeks of an incredible amount of work. Water is a period piece, so we had to construct sets and look for locations, and get rid of the television antennas and satellite dishes that are all over the city now.”
Then, on the first day of shooting, all the permissions turned out to be worthless. “We must have shot for about a minute, when a mob of about 12,000 people—they say it’s 12,000, I don’t know—arrived and started protesting the script, and said that the film was anti-Hindu and should not be made. They threw our sets into the river and burned the ones they hadn’t thrown. My effigy was being burned all over the city. It was scary. Death threats, bombs, machine guns.” Mehta chuckles. “I can laugh about it now, but at that point it was totally unexpected. The people who protested were a group of Hindu extremists who were actually the cultural arm of the very government that had given us permission. So it made no sense.”
Production stopped, and Mehta hurried to New Delhi “to get permission, which I did get, and assurances that we would be protected and nothing would happen. We started shooting the second day, and I think we shot for another five minutes before the Indian army arrived. You can’t shoot with an army on set. They said they were there to protect us, because another mob was arriving. Because a man, in protest against the film, had tried to commit suicide. And he was in intensive care. So we stopped shooting immediately, and I walked off the set. The local journalists were there, and they told us that the man who had tried to commit suicide actually does it for a living.” She laughs gently. “A month before, he’d set fire to himself. You could hire him for 25 bucks.”
Fire also elicited death threats, but Mehta says, “That happens in India all the time. You don’t take that seriously. This you take seriously.”
The director had reason to think she was well-regarded in India. Earth, which is set during the partition of India and Pakistan, was a hit there, and the country submitted it as its contender for the foreign-film Oscar. “So you don’t know what’s going to happen. But you think if you do the right thing, nothing’s going to happen, and”—her voice gets small—“Water happened.”
Mehta never thought of abandoning the film. In fact, she was quickly offered alternate locations in India after the Varanasi shoot was abandoned, in provinces “that belonged to the opposition of the ruling party.” She almost committed to making the movie in one of those sites but at the last minute decided against it. “I was so angry and emotionally wounded by what had happened. I thought if I imposed my anger on the script, it would really distort it. So I promised myself I wouldn’t make the film until I stopped being angry. And that took four-and-a-half years. And one day the anger was gone, and I picked up the script, and three months later we were shooting.”
The director returned to Toronto and made Bollywood/Hollywood, a contemporary romantic comedy involving Indian-immigrant culture clash in Canada. Though the film was not well-received critically, for Mehta “it reaffirmed that you can make films and have fun. They all don’t have to be life-threatening.”
Bollywood/Hollywood’s female lead was Lisa Ray, a former model and Canadian native of Indian descent. “I met her in Bombay,” Mehta says with a giggle. “I had no clue. So it was strange to find out, ‘My God, the kid’s from Toronto.’ I found later she moved to Bombay when she was 15. And so she had spent all her adult life in Bombay.”
Ultimately, Mehta cast Ray as one of Water’s central characters, the beautiful young widow Kalyani, who is forced into prostitution to support the other widows. She replaced Nandita Das, who had appeared in both Fire and Earth and was cast in the 2000 production of the third film. “The script didn’t change, but I changed, in five years. The way I looked at the character changed. For me, when I looked at the script this time, I thought it was important that Kalyani looked absolutely vulnerable and fragile. So I wanted an actress who would personify that fragility, and the actress I had earlier—who is lovely and a very fine actress—she’s a strong actress, and a very strong woman. And that comes through. And I didn’t want that for the character.”
Mehta did have to change one aspect of the script when she went to shoot Water a second time. Because the production was moved to Sri Lanka—“We couldn’t have gotten insurance to go back to India,” she notes—the story’s location was switched from Varanasi to a smaller, more easily simulated city.
“There’s no way that we could create Varanasi, so I didn’t even try. You’d need the budget of Gladiator to do Varanasi. So I reset the film in a place called Rawalpur, which is on the Bihar-Bengal border, in the Northeast. It’s very similar to in and around Colombo—the tropical vegetation, small towns. What we had to re-create were the temples, because there are no temples in Sri Lanka.” (Actually, there are, but most of them are in the civil-war-torn northeast, which also wouldn’t have pleased the insurance company.)
While Rawalpur was re-created “an hour-and-a-half southwest of Colombo, the widows’ house was in Colombo, in the Tamil section of Colombo, which was very interesting. When he first came to Colombo, Gandhi actually stayed in that priest’s house. So it was just perfect.”
Although Mehta has made movies that don’t touch on her Indian heritage, she’s clearly most engaged with films about India or those, such as her upcoming Exclusion, that involve both of her homelands. The new project is, she says, “based on a historical incident that happened in 1914, between India and Canada.”
All three films in the trilogy got funding in both India and Canada, although Water ultimately used mostly Canadian money. So it seems reasonable to ask which country is more essential to Mehta’s work. But the question does not strike the director as reasonable. “Neither,” she replies, bristling slightly. “I’m relying on myself.”—Mark Jenkins