The untouchable

When Deepa Mehta's film "Water" challenged the traditionally harsh fate of India's widows, enraged Hindu extremists rioted. The director talks about fundamentalism, desire and the "long-suffering Indian housewife."

Topics: Movies,

The untouchable

When “Fire,” the first film in Deepa Mehta’s elements trilogy, came out in 1996, it was a landmark moment. For my Indian parents and their friends, it was the first time they could walk into a multiplex in Atlanta and see a film in Hindi. The fact that it was by a female Indian director — a very rare breed — made it even more exciting. But “Fire” wasn’t an easy film for most Indians to love; it was about two women in unhappy marriages who enter into a lesbian relationship with each other — a subject that delighted a few but disturbed many. In India, Hindu fundamentalists attacked theaters playing the film, and “Fire” was eventually banned there and in Pakistan.

And so Deepa Mehta became one of India’s most visible and controversial filmmakers. Although in the 1970s she emigrated to Toronto, where she shot her first two feature films, her return to India to make “Fire” established her reputation. Now “Water,” the third installment in her elements trilogy — the second was “Earth” (1998), about the nationalism that led to the 1948 partition of India and Pakistan — is proving to be Mehta’s most controversial film to date.

“Water” takes place in 1938 Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, in an ashram where widows are sent to live out the rest of their days as ascetics. Widows’ ashrams are hidden places in India that serve both a religious purpose — according to Hindu text, a wife is half her husband, and when he dies she herself becomes half-dead — and a practical one: Families get to unload a burdensome and unmarriageable female member. It’s a spare and desperate existence; the women’s heads are shaved, they are allowed to wear only white, and if they’re lucky, they get one meal a day. It’s a fate preferable to committing suttee — an old custom in which a widow immolates herself on her late husband’s funeral pyre — but only slightly.

Two things shake up the ashram in “Water”: The first is the arrival of the 8-year-old Chuyia, played by a magnetic Sri Lankan girl named Sarala. Before she even realizes that she’s been married off, Chuyia’s husband dies, and her father drops her off at the ashram. Her inability to accept the religious concept behind the widows’ bleak lives wakes up the ashram’s tenants, particularly Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a young beauty who’s forced into prostitution by the head widow in order to finance the ashram, and who falls in love with an idealistic law student who doesn’t care that she’s a widow. At the same time, Gandhi, who believes that widows should be able to remarry, is gaining a strong following and bringing hope to young idealists all over India — a part of the film that is depressing given that widows’ ashrams still exist today.

“Water” is a lovely, atmospheric film, and its depiction of daily life on the Ganges — where women bathe and wash their laundry as funeral pyres burn on the banks — is fascinating to watch. And though Mehta (who both wrote and directed the film) is clearly criticizing the treatment of widows as untouchables, it’s not a film that’s trying to be overtly controversial. Which is why it’s surprising that “Water’s” shooting was plagued by death threats and riots.

Religious fundamentalism, rising around the world, dominated Indian politics in the late ’90s. By the time Mehta began filming in 2000, in Varanasi, India’s fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party was in full power, and the government’s cultural arm, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was working to transform India into a Hindu nation. Although the BJP had approved Mehta’s script, finding that it did not violate its censorship rules, the more powerful RSS was working to undermine the film. Fake excerpts of the script started circulating in the newspapers, and protesters chanted outside the set and burned Mehta in effigy. After the film’s sets were burned to the ground, production on “Water” was shut down. Mehta returned to Canada to make the comedy “Bollywood/Hollywood” and “The Republic of Love,” based on Carol Shields’ novel. Four years after she dropped it, Mehta picked up the script for “Water” again and headed to Sri Lanka, where she built her own Varanasi, recast the film, and managed to complete “Water” in a country twisted by its own politics but at least unfazed by hers. (Happily, the BJP was voted out of power in 2004, while Mehta was shooting in Sri Lanka.)

Mehta’s daughter, Devyani Saltzman, accompanied Mehta on the film shoot and wrote a memoir of the experience, “Shooting Water,” out now from Newmarket Press. Saltzman’s story adds another layer to the film, making “Water” not just about Indian widows, but about the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in the late ’90s and the particular difficulty of being any kind of outsider in India.

When I met with Mehta recently in New York, it was immediately clear how tough life has made her. Sitting erect in a black Nehru jacket, her long black hair parted down the middle, the 55-year-old director is quiet and intense when she talks about the protests that shut down the film, passionate while discussing how Indian women are treated, and happiest, it seems, when talking about filmmaking.

You made “Fire” and “Earth” not too long before “Water,” but you didn’t have problems shooting those, did you?

I had problems with “Fire,” but not with shooting. I had no problems with “Earth.” “Earth” did really well in India. It went through the censors, and played all over, and in fact it was India’s entry in the Oscars. “Fire” had problems after it was released in Mumbai and Delhi, but it continued to play everywhere else. So what happened with “Water” came as a big shock.

Do you know what changed in that short time that made “Water” such a problem to shoot?

Absolutely. It was the rise of fundamentalism. The BJP got into power, and it was the days of history books being rewritten and culture being redefined, people who were not Hindus being persecuted. Paintings by MF Hussein, who is one of our preeminent artists, being burned because Saraswati, one of the Indian goddesses he had depicted, wasn’t fully clothed. It was the flexing of muscles of Hindu extremists, the RSS in particular, and its affiliates. They saw themselves, and they continue to see themselves, as the protectors of Hinduism. What doesn’t fit in with their sense of what is Hinduism — and not only Hinduism, but Indian culture as defined by them — should be punished. And I think “Water” was a casualty of those times.

Many of the charges against the film that were circulating in the press were false, and a lot of the protesters didn’t even know what it was about before they started protesting. Even after the film was shut down, prostitutes were protesting in the street because they thought the film was about prostitution.

That was very strange! I arrived in Calcutta, and somebody said there’s a huge protest against what is happening with “Water.” And I said, Really, in Calcutta? And they said, Yes, traffic had been stopped because there were all these sex workers protesting. And I said, Why are they protesting? [laughs] Everyone had their own take on what “Water” was about; somebody said it was a relationship between a Brahmin and an untouchable girl that was so offensive. So somebody said it was caste, and somebody said it was anti-Gandhi, and that’s why it was unacceptable. There were so many versions of the script floating around.

But do you think that if people had known what the film was really about, there would have been so much outrage?

No, no, it had nothing to do with what the film was about. You can’t make a film in India unless you give it to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. So before we made “Water,” we had to submit the script. And they go through it with a fine-toothed comb and scrutinize each word. If there’s anything that’s derogatory to Indian culture or to Indians, they won’t give you permission to shoot that. And it got complete approval. They knew what the script was about, and it was their own cultural arm that was protesting.

The material itself is not terribly controversial.

There’s nothing in it! That’s why they gave us permission. Not only is it set in 1938, it [widows being sent to ashrams] still happens. So in what way is it controversial?

So this was really about fundamentalism rising.

And maybe on a certain level feeling like they [the RSS] didn’t want to say that this was not right that it happens to widows. That I was even questioning the way they are treated, that’s not right. So that was definitely a part of their agenda. According to Hinduism, or their interpretation of Hinduism, widows should be ascetics, and should atone for the sins that caused the death of their husbands by becoming ascetics, by being marginalized in society, by having their hair shaved and by being desexualized, by becoming pariahs in society. And they knew that the script in fact questioned that, because that is the very nucleus of “Water,” is a questioning of treating people according to the laws of manner, which are outdated, I think, and are really unfair to widows. So they didn’t like that, [questioning] that aspect of Hinduism which believes in women being subjugated, women being oppressed.

It surprised me to learn that many of the film’s protesters were women, who themselves might be tossed into an ashram one day.

Yes, there were huge groups of women. They had no idea what it was about. They were shaking their rolling pins up in the air and protesting, but they thought that somehow the film was going to be [spiritually] polluting the Ganges. Who knows what people are told? And that’s not just true of India; it’s true all over the world. You can really incite mobs in the name of religion the way you can’t with anything else.

By the time you were ready to shoot in Sri Lanka, many of the actors you ended up with are not what one would call full Indian — Lisa Ray is half Polish, John Abraham (who plays Kalyani’s love interest) is Syrian Christian and Irani, Manorama (who plays the head widow) is half Irish, Sarala is Sinhalese. Did you think about that at all? That the outcome of all that protesting and sabotage was not only that you re-created India outside of India, but that your casting constituted a subtle jab at the Hindu right, or the idea of Indian purism?

There’s something you must understand. When we were shut down, and we were invited by the government of West Bengal and the government of Madhya Pradesh to make the film there, after we were shut down in Varanasi, they were extremely generous and said we’ll give you full protection. They were wonderful. And I was ready to commit to one of them, and then I realized that I had been so badly burned by what had happened and I was still so angry about this experience. We were threatened every day with death threats, effigies being burned, the crew getting obscene calls and our sets being destroyed — it was horrible. It became about something larger, about the freedom of expression in a democratic country. It stopped being about “Water” and the extremists, it became about the arts and politics. And I thought if I brought my anger onto the script — for me, it’s a very fragile thing, and anger’s a very powerful tool. So I promised myself that I would not make “Water” until I stopped being angry. And that took four years. By the time it dissipated, and I looked at the script again, there was no feeling of vindication or wanting to take jabs at anybody.

There’s no person who is completely Indian. We have people whose ancestors come from Persia, or Mongolia. It’s a secular nation, that’s very important. There is no pure Indian as such. So Manorama being half Irish and Indian doesn’t make her less Indian. John was born in India, being half Syrian Christian — what you’re doing is by saying that you’re saying all of South India and Tamil Nadu and Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, which are filled with Syrian Christians, are not Indians. How can you say that?

I’m not personally saying that — I agree with you that there’s no such thing as “pure” Indian, but the fundamentalists who hounded you would say that there was.

I know, but I’m just really amazed. I’m not being critical of you, I’m just telling you that it wasn’t a jab at anybody; there was no anger, it was a desire to make the best film possible and to cast the most appropriate people that I thought were right for the characters. I’m just curious — what made you ask that?

I read your daughter’s book, and she called attention to the fact that so many of the actors in the film were from mixed backgrounds.

I think what Devyani was trying to do was show the secular nature of India. And I don’t think it was that important.

How did you feel, reading your daughter’s account of this experience?

It was great. I’m really proud of her. I’m a mom, what do you expect? [laughs] It’s really well written. Also, it’s really interesting to see her perspective. And I know the times were difficult for her. It was not easy for her to come there, to come to Varanasi, as an 18- or 19-year-old, and come there as a camera trainee and have to deal with this hell breaking loose and her mom being threatened and dealing with that. So reading that from her point of view was lovely, and I was very deeply moved.

I remember when “Fire” came out, and my parents and their friends were so excited, not just because it was one of the first Indian films that broke through to the West but because it was about Indian women. My mom complains about this concept of “susheel Hindu nari” –

[Laughs] I think I’d like your mom! Susheel Hindu nari, the epitome of the good Indian woman.

Right, the idea that a good Indian woman is one who understands her place in society and that suffering is her lot in life. “Fire” was one of the first Indian films that refused to buy into that concept. But most of the other Indian women that my mother talked to about the film, they liked it but they couldn’t relate to it. They were befuddled by the film, and I wonder if you’ve seen something similar, this inability to see, even among Indian women, that desire is important and that being the long-suffering Indian housewife –

Isn’t the be all and end all?


I think probably your mom’s reaction is right on. This susheel Hindu nari, that’s the epitome of what’s considered a good Indian woman. And we call India “Bharat Ma,” Mother India. So it’s interesting, we put the Hindu woman on a pedestal; we worship her like a goddess. And yet socially, she is so unequal. There’s a whole dichotomy going on about the way Indian women are perceived. And the way we are perceived, somehow, we almost subconsciously imbibe, and we start believing that that’s the way we are. So a lot of the reaction was, “I know I like it but I’m not supposed to like it.” That’s what happened with “Fire.” And it’s not because of not believing in desire; it’s because it’s too deeply ingrained that we shouldn’t believe in desire.

You definitely belong to the Indian art-house cinema tradition, which had its heyday in India from the 1950s to ’70s, but has been overshadowed by Bollywood in recent years. Art-house films like yours, though, have become more prevalent overseas. Do you think it’s becoming a crossover genre?

I really don’t like the word “crossover.” I think cinema’s cinema, and either it appeals to a lot of people — I think that’s what we mean when we talk about crossover, right? Something that’s indigenous and can actually work somewhere else. I think very few Indian films are so-called crossover. Probably “Monsoon Wedding” is one that was actually seen by a lot of people. I think “Bend It Like Beckham” was seen by a lot of people. I can’t think of any others. I think the ones that do get seen in the West are seen by the Indian diaspora, which I do not call crossover. So I don’t think there are many so-called crossover films.

Who are your influences? Your films have such a Western — or maybe I should say international — sensibility, that I sometimes forget that I’m watching an Indian film. Then in “Water” you have these song situations — the song sequences in Indian films that move the narrative forward. Those caught me a little off-guard, because I forgot for a while that I was watching an Indian movie.

I was influenced greatly by a filmmaker called Guru Dutt, who I think made some of the most lyrical films in India. I think the imagery [of "Water"] is very Bengali, in fact. The construction is very much a 1950s narrative, a humanist cinema narrative, which is flowing, which is not about the juxtaposition of images, but about trying to make them lyrical, which is very different from contemporary cinema. And to me that’s very Indian. And the construction is very Indian. Satyajit Ray has influenced me, and Guru Dutt has, and there’s an Indian director called Bimal Roy, again in the ’50s, who made very strong films. Ray, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurasawa, these have been my greatest influences, and to a certain extent Bergman as well, because to me they really are the epitome of humanist cinema. About human conditions, but told with a lyricism that’s breathtaking.

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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