Deepa Mehta’s “Water,” the third picture in her “elements” trilogy that began with “Fire” and continued with “Earth,” had a long and troubled production history. She conceived the idea for the story–about an eight-year old child bride sent, in accordance with fundamentalist Hindu custom, to an ashram to live with others widows for the rest of her life, segregated from the rest of society and her family–while filming an episode of George Lucas’ “Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” in the Indian holy city of Varanasi more than a decade ago. She saw an aged widow searching for something on the steps leading down to the Ganges and, failing to find it, weeping over its loss.
“I hadn’t been to Varanasi [before],” Mehta explained in a recent Dallas interview, “so I’d never had the opportunity to see the ashrams. I hadn’t come into contact with institutions or ashrams because they happen in very particular holy cities in India.” But her experience led her to write the script for “Water,” which she set in the late 1930s, when the practice of child marriage was still prevalent and Gandhi was mounting his challenges against such traditional practices.
By 2000, Mehta said, she was ready to make the film after getting the script vetted by the proper authorities. “In India you can’t just make a film,” she said. “You can’t go there and say, ‘I’m going to make a film’ without giving your script to the government for approval. So they go through it with a fine-tooth comb, and if it seems as if there’s not anything at all derogatory or detrimental to India or its people or its religions, then they won’t give you permission to shoot. We submitted the script of ‘Water,’ and they looked at it and they said, ‘Fine.’ And this was the Vajpayee government, which was the right-wing government that we had five years ago! They said, ‘No problem–shoot it.’ And we went and prepped for six weeks. And two days into the shoot, the cultural arm of the same government starts protesting that the film is anti-Hindu! That’s confusing! The first reaction is, what’s going on? The same government has given us permission! And they said there’s nothing in it that’s detrimental or even derogatory, for that matter, to Hinduism.”
The opposition represented the fundamentalist form of Hinduism. “As with any other fundamentalist religion,” Mehta said, “you take a particular religion and you take it to an extreme, to a way where it can control human beings totally and completely. It’s not only a misinterpretation, it’s also, I think, a show of power, and it’s definitely for personal benefit as opposed to the good of humankind. It’s a philosophy. The Brahmins, or the priests, felt that the texts of Hinduism had not been taken too seriously and things were getting far too lax. After that there was another reaction where Hinduism loosened up again. And so what the fundamentalists do is grab onto the Manu shastras as the interpretation of the Hindu texts. The Manu shastras were a lot of rituals written two thousand years ago, and actually are dictates on how men and women should live their lives–‘This is what you have to do in order to be a good king, this is what you have to do to be a good woman, and this is what you have to do to be a good widow.’ Those were a total reaction to what was happening to the leaders at a certain point in Hinduism.”
And the protests soon forced the production to shut down. “It was dangerous, but I think more than anything else it was totally bewildering,” Mehta recalled. “That’s the other thing with fundamentalists. You can’t sit and reason with them, because they’re driven by passion, they aren’t driven by logic or reason. And they saw themselves as protectors of Hinduism. Suddenly the script, which was a questioning, became anti-Hindu. At that point it was important that they be seen as the protectors of true Hinduism. I was a soft target, and I think it played nicely into their hands to make such a big deal about it. It was about getting publicity, I think. For two or three months I had to have bodyguards, and after that, they lost the election. That’s all it takes. The people have become quite savvy–five years of them being in power taught the people a lot. That’s why they really lost the election quite badly–much to their own shock.”
The closure of the production under political pressure didn’t deter Mehta’s intention to make “Water,” but did lead her to postpone it. “I absolutely knew that I’d do the film,” she said. “There were three, four provinces, after we were shot down in this particular province, that said come and make the film in our province. And I went to look at all those provinces, but I realized that to make the film in the state I was in–which was very angry and very upset–would be, I felt, doing an injustice to my own script. So I promised myself at that point that I would not make the film until I stopped being angry about what had happened. It was a terrible time, because to deal with your own anger and to recognize it took a lot out of me. It took four years for the anger to dissipate. I did other films in between, and that helped, certainly. But the baggage of your own disappointment and a sense of vindication didn’t seem right for a script that fragile. It needed the director not to have an agenda.”
Ultimately Mehta chose to make the film in Sri Lanka. “They had a beautiful river, and there are many small temple towns that aren’t as grand as Varanasi. The first thing I thought to myself, was that there was no point in trying to recreate Varanasi in Sri Lanka, because you’d need the budget of ‘King Kong.’ So I opted for a certain area in India where its foliage and the topography is a lot like Sri Lanka, which is the Bengal. So I set the film there.”
The practice that “Water” reveals is not as prevalent as it once wads in India, but it still exists. “Everybody is sort of aware of it, and awareness is the first step towards something being questioned–and it is being questioned,” Mehta said. You can’t talk about them [the widows] with educated people without the people smirking about them because they’re so absurd, but for the women who live by the dictates of it, it’s terrible.”
But Mehta doesn’t believe that her film will change the system. “I don’t think films can help change how people think,” she said. “Films, if they work on a certain level, can have a resonance in people who see it. I think they can start a dialogue–they can create an awareness. And, hopefully, people see it who can actually, really, substantially do something about it. It has to be at such a grassroots level, and it needs the full cooperation of the government. I don’t think that seeing ‘Water’ is going to change anything. I wish it were that simple.
“But it certainly creates an awareness.”