Although filmmakers often throw themselves into their projects, just by the all-consuming nature of the work, Deepa Mehta has paid a higher price than most to make a single movie. In fact, she almost made it twice. The item in question, a sumptuous period piece called Water, opened the recent Vancouver International Film Festival and it returns here Friday (November 4) for a commercial run.
Getting the movie made took more than seven years and involved death threats, shutdowns, and several postponements. It wasn't really Water's subject matter that made things so difficult but the climate of escalating Hindu fundamentalism, whipped up by self-serving politicians looking to cash in on fear and superstition. That, in fact, ties in with the film's story, which is set in 1938 among an all-ages group of widows cut off from society in British colonial India.
Famously, the movie was repeatedly interrupted back in 2000, when the veteran writer-director attempted to shoot her original story in Benares (Varanasi), where it is set. The tale closes off the trilogy Mehta began with Fire and Earth. The first version of Water had Asian superstar Shabana Azmi in the key role of Shakuntala, the wisest of the widows, and colleague Nandita Das-they played the line-crossing sisters-in-law in Fire-as Kalyani, the young beauty who earns illicit but tacitly approved extra money for the ashram.
After a handful of Hindu extremists flipped out, politicos aligned with the cultural arm of the then-ruling Bharatiya Janata party spread the word that thousands took to the streets of Varanasi to protest the "sacrilegious" production. Police and bureaucrats soon showed up to shutter things for good. Two short scenes had been shot.
Four years later, the production fired up again, this time in Sri Lanka, where it proceeded under the innocuous-and fake-title of Full Moon. This time around, Azmi and Das were replaced by Seema Biswas and Bollywood/Hollywood's Lisa Ray. Kalyani's handsome suitor was played by hunky ex-model John Abraham (in wire-rim glasses) and the anchoring character, eight-year-old "widow" Chuyia, was now played by a little Colombo girl named Sarala-who was directed via translator, as she only spoke Sinhalese.
"Shooting in Sri Lanka was an exhilarating challenge," Mehta said when the Georgia Straight had a chance to sit down with the filmmaker and her glamorous star Ray at the bar of a downtown Vancouver hotel just before our festival began. Although it was cocktail hour, they both settled for English-style tea-actually Indian, as Mehta pointed out.
"It was so vivid," Ray recalled of her time in the island nation. "Watching Water the other day, I could positively smell the place. Deepa did such a wonderful job of re-creating Benares, while Sri Lanka is really nothing like India, in terms of buildings and culture."
About this, Mehta mildly disagreed, adding the throaty laugh that comes from tough fights and several packs of Rothman's a day for her whole adult life. "Well, you could say it's like the Deep South of India."
While preparing for the three-month effort, both women were aware of the tension between Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups. But as detailed in Shooting Water: A Mother-Daughter Journey and the Making of a Film (Key Porter Books, $26.95), a production diary kept by the director's daughter, Devyani Saltzman, the set needed to be a hermetically sealed entity for the project to work.
A cloistered sensation is exactly what comes across in the film, which is set mostly in an ashram where poor widows depend on the money that comes from prostituting their most beautiful member, Kalyani, played by Ray. When her character meets Abraham's, a social activist embracing the changes promoted by Gandhi, the caste-smashing liaison is first frowned upon and then actively fought when it turns out that the man wants to marry her.
Mehta described this baroque circumstance as real life running into entrenched tradition cloaked with pseudoreligious trappings. "This kind of prostitution did happen and was accepted; either it was with priests or rich Brahmins or rich landlords who are not Brahmins. But to get married? The scriptures don't say that's okay, and they don't say that widows can't become prostitutes."
"At that point, the money becomes secondary," Ray chimed in. "There it was at the intersection between economics, religion, and just plain old superstition, quite frankly. You might think this marriage would be an advantage for them, but you'd have to have a larger world-view to see that. These women are living in this little, sealed-off world, and such notions are very faraway indeed. Forget action; even asking questions is considered dangerous."
Mehta added: "These are people who live according to scriptures, or a narrow interpretation of what the texts dictate. Remember, when someone says to Kalyani that she'll go to hell if this marriage takes place, and [the widows think] 'We'll all go to hell' by association. Also, if one breaks free, what will the others think?"
According to Ray, the widows were dealing not so much with religion but with a social system designed to hold everyone in place.
"In India, the smallest unit isn't the individual; it's the family. And by extension, the ashram is a strange, twisted kind of family unit. It's always about, at any cost, maintaining the social structure."
Mehta put a more financial spin on it. "Your husband's dead and his family doesn't want you there any more. Essentially, they don't want to share the wealth or any inheritance."
"A widow is a wild card in Indian society," Ray stated. "She attracts males, but she's neither a daughter nor a sister nor a wife. What were the options for a woman who chose not to live like this? How do you earn a living? Where are you going to go? Ashram means 'refuge'; it's supposed to be a home."
The Toronto-born Ray, whose mother is Polish, has encountered the effect of this system much closer to home, and to our own, putatively enlightened era.
"We see the repercussions even among Indians living here. It's not just happening in rustic village circumstances. In my own family, my father's side was Indian but very, very Anglophile. My father turned away from everything he saw as old-fashioned and superstitious. And yet both my grandmother and my aunt shaved their heads, wore white, became strict vegetarians with one meal a day. They more or less withdrew from life. And this is a very literate, worldly Brahmin family. How do you reconcile that? In India, the strangest things are reconciled."
Mehta bumped into a similar story at a recent festival screening in Calgary, after which a middle-aged woman approached her with the tale of her own shaven-headed mother.
"Apparently, she never partook of any of the life around her. And the daughter, who was born here, said she thought her mother was simply observing tradition and the family should respect that. She lived like that for 25 years and died last year-some sweet little Hindu widow in the wilds of Alberta-and the daughter said she never understood until she saw this movie. And now she will never forgive herself."
Not all the screening consequences are so dire, and both women have plenty of anecdotes about viewers inspired but also amused and entertained by the film.
"Truly," Ray concluded, "this is the kind of movie I've always aspired to. Even if I weren't lucky enough to be involved with it, I would pay money to see it and would take every opportunity to talk about it. The film has so many layers, it's hard to know where to begin. It has the right alchemy."
Rare for her, Mehta had little to say in response to this deep praise for a project that chewed through so many years of her life. Instead she simply sat back and let out another satisfied laugh. She didn't even reach for a Rothman's.