Once more into troubled Water

By Geoffrey Macnab

It is six years since Deepa Mehta first started production on her film Water in the holy city of Benares on the river Ganges.

Set in 1938, this was intended as the third part in Mehta's trilogy that had begun with Fire (1996), notorious as one of the first Indian-set films to depict lesbianism, and continued with Earth (1998), which looked at the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947.

Mehta and her crew were aware of how much controversy Fire provoked. To some, the idea that lesbianism existed in Indian culture was anathema. Right-wing Hindu fundamentalist leader Bal Thackeray, leader of the Shiv Sena political party, had done his best to prevent Fire from being shown. Cinemas in Bombay and Delhi were fire-bombed by his supporters, a cinema manager was beaten up and there was widespread vandalism.

"The film had been playing for about four weeks in India before somebody woke up and said this was anti-Hindu because no lesbians exist in India," says Mehta. "For me, it was terrible - a film that had gone through the Indian censors without one cut and which had played successfully all over the world got shut down in my own country. It was heartbreaking."

Fire was again cleared by the Indian censorship board and subsequently shown in cinemas under police protection.

Even then, the protests continued. Extremists would buy tickets, pose as normal cinemagoers and then command spectators to leave the theatre.

The irony was that the film-makers had no difficulties making Fire or Earth on location in India.

With Water, matters were different. Producer David Hamilton tells a chilling story about a day early on during production. He and Mehta were on location when reports filtered through that 2000 right-wing extremists had rampaged through the base, setting fire to the sets and throwing them into the river. Mehta's effigy was burned and she was accused of being anti-Hindu.

"I think their intention was to cause as much media attention as they could get," says Hamilton. These people are very well organised and they're also dangerous. Even though I don't think that there was an intent to cause us any bodily harm, we were under death threat."

For a fortnight or so, the film-makers held their ground. Pretty soon, it became apparent that the ostensible grievances over Mehta's story were an irrelevance. The protesters were simply using Water to win media attention.

Mehta and Hamilton briefly tried to revive the project at other, safer locations in India. Hollywood heavyweights pitched in to support them. George Lucas (for whom Mehta had directed an episode of The Young Indiana Jones) took out a full-page ad in a trade paper to decry the fundamentalists' actions. Even so, it rapidly became apparent that the film would cause trouble wherever it was shot. Eventually, Mehta and Hamilton closed down production.

Five years on, she completed the movie she started in 2000, with an entirely different cast. Mehta decamped to Sri Lanka, but even then, she shot the movie under a different title, Full Moon, and kept a closed set.

The Toronto-based Mehta has made two other features in the intervening years. She admits she has changed as a personality.

"Now that the film is complete, I can look back on the journey it has taken to make it," says Mehta. "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."

Mehta believes that Water is a far stronger film than she would have been able to make in 2000.

Moreover, as the writer-director points out, the controversy surrounding Water is in keeping with the film's subject matter. "The way religion was unleashed on us, using religion to shut us down was exactly the core of the script for me. It was [about] to what extent we manipulate religion to serve our personal benefit."

This is a drama about the repression and subjection of women. Its focus is the plight of widows. The story begins in heart-rending fashion with a pretty, long-haired, young girl learning that her sickly husband (whom she barely realises she has married) is dead and that she is now a widow. Her choices are stark. Sacred Hindu texts proclaim that a woman who is unfaithful to her husband "is reborn in the womb of a jackal".

Chuyia can either marry her husband's brother, die on her husband's funeral pyre, or live away from the world. Her father deposits her in an ashram whose other inhabitants are all also widows. Some are children like her. Some are elderly. They all have their hair shaven and are obliged to beg. Only one woman is allowed to keep her hair, the beautiful Kalyani, but this is only because she is being forced to prostitute herself to make extra money for the ashram.

"They shouldn't be marginalised because of something they had no part in - which is the death of their husbands," says Mehta, pointing out the central injustice at the heart of the story.

As the film makes clear, religion is used to justify the terrible treatment of widows, but economics really lie behind the decision to expel them from their families. The subject matter may be grim but Water is an exquisite piece of film-making, beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens (Star Wars) and with haunting music from Bollywood legend A.R. Rahman.

"Learn to live like a lotus untouched by the filthy water it grows in," one of the widows is told in the film. It's a motto that Mehta seems to have taken to heart. She is frustrated that she is regarded in certain quarters as a polemicist rather than an artist. Her films may deal head-on with social issues, notably the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society, but, she insists, "I don't feel like a heroine for provoking anything. I am a film-maker."

To her relief, Water has been accepted on its own terms. Shortly before its premiere as the opening film at the Toronto Festival, Hamilton organised a special screening in New York. Among the guests was Salman Rushdie.

He was enraptured. "The film has serious, challenging things to say about the crushing of women by atrophied religious and social dogmas, but, to its great credit, it tells its story from inside its characters, rounding out the human drama of their lives, and unforgettably touching the heart," Rushdie wrote.

Water has broken box-office records in Australia and has also done well in the US. The film is yet to screen in India but Mehta is confident that it will be seen there - and that the fundamentalists won't be able to derail the release.

Mehta is planning an even more ambitious film called Exclusion. Set in 1914, this will tell the true story of how 375 Indians commandeered a cargo ship to travel to Canada to escape persecution from the British.

"Once [the Indians] got there, the Canadian Government wouldn't let them in because they were scared of the 'brown invasion'," says Mehta. "They were sent back to India. Once they arrived back and disembarked, the British soldiers opened fire on them, killed quite a number of them and wounded the rest. For me, it's a story about the socio-economic reasons that lead to racism."

Exclusion is bound to be a battle to make and it will provoke controversy. It wouldn't be a Deepa Mehta film otherwise.

What: Water by Indian director Deepa Mehta
Screening: Auckland International Film Festival Friday July 14, 10.45am and Saturday July 15 6pm

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