"Deepa Mehta's Water is a magnificent film. The ensemble acting of the women in the widows' hostel is exceptional: intimate, painful, wounded, jaundiced, corrupted, tender, tough. The fluid lyricism of the camera provides an unsettling contrast to the arid difficulties of the characters' lives. 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."
BACKGROUND OF THE FILM
It was once rumoured that Bal Thackeray was quoted as saying that the person he hates most in the world is Deepa Mehta. Thackeray is the leader of Shiv Sena, one of the most powerful right-wing Hindu fundamentalist groups in India and is reputed to have a stranglehold on everything that transpires within the massive metropolis of Bombay. This is a powerful and dangerous adversary and one must wonder what it is that Mehta did to raise the ire of the man who was named by a judicial inquiry as the provocateur of frenzied Hindu mobs that in 1992 burned Muslim homes and businesses and killed 1,200 in Bombay. The answer is simple: she made films which questioned the interpretations that current Hindu leaders were giving to the Sacred Texts and in particular as they related to the treatment of women.
Mehta's first run-in with Thackeray came during the 1998 release of Fire, the award-winning first film in her trilogy of the elements, which was followed by Earth in 1999 and finally by Water, which was completed in 2005. Using a politically correct mix of men and women and alerting the news media beforehand, Thackeray's so-called Shiv Sainiks (i.e. members of Shiv Sena) rampaged through a matinee show of Fire in Bombay, smashing glass and burning posters. The next day, theatres in New Delhi, Pune and Surat were similarly hit. "Is it fair to show such things which are not part of Indian culture?" Bal Thackeray, asked in a magazine interview. "It can corrupt tender minds. It is a sort of a social AIDS." Thackeray was referring to the lesbian relationship between the two main female characters in the film, relationships which he claimed did not exist in India. Every newspaper in India and many around the world including the New York Times carried coverage of these events and thus Thackeray achieved his objective of being seen as the protector of the Hindu faith. In spite of the fact that the Supreme Court ordered that troops be mustered to protect the theatres and armed guards be provided for director Mehta, the theatre owners were too intimidated to
re-open Fire to the public. Fire became the highest-selling pirated DVD in India.
Mehta's next battle with the fundamentalist element did not occur until 2000 when a rioting mob of 2,000 attacked and burned the sets of the production of Water and issued death threats against the director Mehta and the actresses Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. This confrontation was organized by the RSS, another Hindu fundamentalist faction closely aligned with the Shiv Sena and the cultural arm of the BJP party, who were in power in New Delhi at that time. The Indian government publicly decried this effrontery to free speech and provided 300 troops to protect the production and heavily armed security for Mehta. This did not hinder the well-organized opposition to the film who, it was alleged, had a mole in the production office and found a way of tapping the cell phones of the producer and director. For two weeks the production held on in Benares, soliciting support from the local religious authorities and government, but to no avail. Mehta's effigy was being burnt in cities across the country daily, in each case covered broadly by the Indian media feeding onto the objectives of the perpetrators. Finally, following a protester's attempted suicide jump into the Ganges in opposition to the filming, the local government shut down the production under the issue of "Public Safety." During this period, support poured in from around the world, including a full-page ad placed by George Lucas in Variety encouraging Deepa to continue the fight. None of this unfortunately had any impact on the radical fundamentalists or the local government.
It took almost five years to put the production of Water back together and it was finally shot in Sri Lanka under an assumed name and strict code of secrecy.
Water is set in a house for Hindu widows in a Holy City in 1938 India and it is assumed by many that the living conditions of the characters in the film are not found in present day India. This is sadly untrue and the desire of the right-wing fundamentalist elements to partially hide this explains the vicious attacks on the production and the director.
The film is now complete but the struggle with the fundamentalist element is not. Mehta continues to receive calls from unknown men and women who offer "friendly advice" that she not release this film in the West as audiences there will not understand the complex religious and social order of India.
There are some images that become indelible in our minds. One such image that has stayed with me for 10 years is that of a Hindu widow in the Holy City of Varanasi in India. Bent like a shrimp, her body wizened with age, white hair shaved close to her scalp, she scampered on all fours, furiously looking for something she had lost on the steps of the Ganges. Her distress was visible as she searched amidst the early morning throng of pilgrims. She was paid scant attention to, not even when she sat down to cry, unsuccessful in her attempt to find whatever she had lost.
It was this image of a widow, sitting on her haunches, arms outstretched on her knees, head bowed down in defeat that became imprinted in my mind and led to the idea of a screenplay which was to become the film Water 10 years later.
I was in Varanasi directing an episode of Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a television series for George Lucas. As a part of prep, I spent early mornings at the banks of the Ganges trying to get a feel for the city that attracted pilgrims from all over India. Amongst them were Hindu widows who, because of convoluted religious beliefs, were relegated to a life of deprivation and indignity. They came to Varanasi to die. Dying by the banks of the Holy River guaranteed them instant salvation.
Though a Hindu myself, Hindu widows remained a bit of an anomaly to me until I started researching them for Water, the third film in my elemental trilogy of Fire and Earth. Their plight moved me enormously. These women lived out their lives as prescribed by a religious text that was nearly two thousand years old.
Water is set in India in the late 1930s when the practice of child marriage was still prevalent. Young girls were often wed to older men for economic reasons. When the men died, they left behind young widows who were farmed out to ashrams (institutions). Considered a financial burden by their families, this was generally the fate of most widows. I decided to follow an eight-year-old widow and her life in an ashram where her presence starts to disrupt and affect the lives of the other residents, particularly Shakuntala and Kalyani.
In the year 2000, armed with the requisite permissions and script approval from the government of India, we assembled the cast and crew of Water in Varanasi. After six weeks of pre-production, we started to shoot on the banks of the river Ganges. Two days into the shoot, what transpired next was unexpected and unprecedented. Overnight, violent protests by Hindu fundamentalists erupted in the city. Accusations of Water being anti-Hindu were cited as the cause of the film sets being thrown in the river, my effigy being burned, and protesters marching in the streets of Varanasi, denouncing the film and its portrayal of Hindu widows. Nobody had read the script. Bewildered by the turn of events, we tried to muster help from the state government who had given the script its approval, but to no avail. Amidst escalating protests and violence and personal death threats, we were forced to shut down production.
In retrospect, Water reflected what was taking place in India in some form or other; the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and high intolerance for anything or anybody that viewed it with skepticism; therefore, we were a soft and highly visible target.
To complete Water had become a personal mission, but it took four years before David Hamilton, the producer, and myself resurrected the project in Sri Lanka. To risk making the film in India again was dangerous and foolhardy at best. I had to recast. The luminous Nandita Das, the lead in Fire and Earth, had to be replaced by the younger Lisa Ray. Seema Biswas, of Bandit Queen fame, accepted Shabana Azmi's role as Shakuntala. John Abraham, a star from Bollywood would play Narayan, the young Gandhian idealist and the fragile widow Kalayani's love interest. For the role of eight-year-old Chuyia, I found a young girl in Sri Lanka. Sarala came from a small village near Galle. Though she had no experience in front of the camera, she was a 'natural.' The challenge was that she spoke neither Hindi nor English. Sarala learned her lines phonetically and I directed her through an interpreter and hand gestures. She was amazing.
Shooting in Sri Lanka was a breeze after our horrendous experience in Varanasi. Giles Nuttgens, who shot Fire and Earth, was behind the camera again. I think Giles is brilliant. Dilip Mehta did the production design. To create India in Sri Lanka was a daunting task. We decided not to even try to re-create Varanasi. To do so would have meant the budget going through the roof. Instead, our modest ghats were only a one-third of a mile long, peppered with the requisite Hindu temples. Colin Monie cut the film in Toronto. I had seen The Magdalene Sisters, which he had edited, and felt that he had the right balance of sensitivity and passion.
Now that the film is complete, I can look back on the journey it has taken to make it. 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? Then the image of a widow 10 years ago surfaces in my mind, as she sits on the steps by the Ganges, her toothless mouth making gasping sounds of despair. I found out later that she had lost her only pair of spectacles. Without them, she was half blind.
ABOUT THE CHARACTERS
Chuyia is an eight-year-old girl with bright, sparkling eyes and a long, untidy braid that falls well below her waist. Her tiny wrists have two red bangles each and silver anklets encircle her bony ankles. Her family recently married her to a successful older man of their village with the prospect that when she came of age she would move to his home and become a proper wife. This plan is quickly thrown into disarray when the husband becomes ill and dies, leaving Chuyia a widow. Tradition dictates that Chuyia be forced to move into a house for Hindu widows to spend the rest of her life in renunciation. As a widow, she is expected to atone for the past sins that resulted in the death of her husband.
Madhumati, a widow in her mid-70s, is the house matriarch. By day she sits in the courtyard ordering instructions to the other widows, while at night she lies in her room, smoking ganja and listening to the latest gossip from her only friend, Gulabi, a eunuch and pimp.
Shakuntala is one of the 14 widows sharing the household into which Chuyia is forced to move. Perhaps the most enigmatic of the widows, she is good-looking enough, intelligent and educated. Quiet and reserved, Shakuntala is caught between the hopelessness of living out her remaining years as a widow and her devout adherence to the dictates of the Hindu scriptures.
Kalyani is breathtaking, and the only widow whose hair is not shorn, as a nod to her profession which was forced upon her at an early age by the powerful head widow Madhumati. Uncomplicated and gentle, she radiates a child-like innocence. Kalyani spends her day either playing with her puppy Kaalu, or talking to the small statue of the God Krishna she has in her room. Her nights though are surreal. Gulabi ferries her across the waters to the mansions of the rich gentry in Rawalpur. This she accepts with a quiet equanimity; it's her karma. Besides, she feels that perhaps this is a test that the God Krishna is putting her through and as the holy books dictate "she should live as the beautiful lotus flower untouched by the dirty water in which it resides." The rest of the widows ostracize her as they feel that close contact will result in a sullying of their purity. When she meets Narayan, the spiritual acceptance of her fate begins to disassemble and she becomes resistant to Madhumati's will.
Narayan, who has just finished his law degree, is an idealist and follower of Gandhi's 'Quit India Movement.' Through pure chance Narayan meets Kalyani. There is an immediate attraction, but the restriction placed on interaction with widows makes it difficult to find a way of pursuing any kind of relationship. Gandhi's movement is not solely dedicated to removing the British from Indian soil but also focuses on social justice particularly as it relates to the treatment of women. Narayan ignores the cultural taboos and continues to meet Kalyani in order to marry her. But marriage to widows is strictly forbidden.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Water was shot over a period of 45 days in Sri Lanka under the title "Full Moon." "We were taking no chances and kept a very low profile while on the shoot," says producer David Hamilton. "Although we did not expect the kind of troubles that we had in India we were making no assumptions. Most films hire a publicist to provide the press updates on the progress of the film, whereas we had an anti-publicist whose responsibilities were to divert attention from our activities."
Hamilton had also been the producer on the original attempt to shoot Water in India as well as Mehta's producer on the first two films of the trilogy, Fire and Earth, and on her Canadian box office hit Bollywood/Hollywood. "Over the past ten years of working together we have developed an uncanny silent language which quickens the pace of mounting a production," states Mehta. "We don't always agree but it never takes us too long to resolve our differences. Over the past five years, this was of immeasurable value in maintaining our determination to put Water back together again."
Giles Nuttgens has been Mehta's cinematographer on all three films in the trilogy and the collaboration was so important to Mehta that the production was delayed from January to April so that Nuttgens could finish Bee Season starring Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche. As a result, Nuttgens had very little prep on this shoot, but his close relationship with Mehta and their shorthand communication made it possible to integrate their respective visions very quickly. Nuttgens recounts that their discussions concluded with an understanding that "Water, unlike the reds of Fire, unlike the rich browns of Earth, needed the calmer moods of blues and greens. Despite the murky, silted and dirty water of the Ganges, we would need a clarity and sobriety that didn't exist in the other films. Deepa and I had talked about Satyajit Ray, about The Apu Trilogy, about the lack of camera movement in films of this period and the way Ray used it to show a life that had not changed over centuries."
Mehta first met Nuttgens on the shoot of The Indiana Jones Chronicles that they were doing for George Lucas. He went on to become one of the cinematographers on Lucas's Star Wars Episodes I, II and III. Nuttgens was as passionate as anyone in the desire to complete the "Trilogy of the Elements" for Mehta. His cinematography on this film pushed the technical limits of the film medium, especially in some of the night scenes. The lighting of the entire width of the river in one night scene was particularly challenging but the results were stunning.
The original shoot was located in the holy city of Benares on the river Ganges and the first challenge in Sri Lanka, a largely Buddhist country, was to create a Hindu temple complex with "ghats" - steps which lead down to the river bank so that devout Hindus can easily perform their daily prayers. This did not exist in Sri Lanka. Production Designer Dilip Mehta was clear in his vision that he was in no way attempting to re-create Benares. "Benares itself was not essential to the story of Water and it would have been foolhardy at best to make any attempt to replicate a thousand-year-old city facade on an independent film budget," Mehta stated. What he did create was a set almost half a mile long on a deserted riverbank south of the city of Colombo. His focus was on authentic detail and the set became so convincing that, within weeks of its completion, a local hotel began to offer boat tours "of the ancient Hindu ruins." This became an annoyance as their boat would constantly have to be chased out of the shot. This along with the local hand-paddled ferry, the monitor lizards who lived in a swamp nearby and a 20-foot python who seemed to like the warmth of the concrete ghats became challenges to the Canadian crew who were more accustomed to raccoons or at worst bears.
The other major location was the "Widows' House" which was found in the centre of Colombo. The small Hindu community had built a temple complex about one hundred years ago and the house in which the trustees of the temple lived was generously made available to the production. Again Dilip Mehta had to build. The script required a second floor and it was necessary to age the interiors so as to create the sense of 1930s India. The art department added to this faithful re-creation by bringing in from India trunks of brass pots, reed umbrellas, wooden doorways and antique household accessories. The original materials which were to be utilized in the Benares shoot had been stored in a warehouse north of New Delhi but unfortunately were washed away during a Monsoon two years ago and had to be replaced. "The challenge was in creating a space that was vibrant for the camera yet a space that would echo the paucity of the lives of the widows," said Dilip Mehta. "But then Deepa's script made it simple. The script was light and shadow alike. The colours baited you. The absence of colour made you weep. It was all in the script. It was hard, almost impossible for a production designer to blunder. The script was akin to a GPS. A blueprint of the soul. So, in all honesty the challenge never wore me down, the humidity did."
Costume designer Dolly Ahluwallia had already created the costumes for Water once before and, as with the props, the previous costumes had been destroyed in the Monsoon and were created anew. The challenge this time was finding materials and tailors who knew Indian dress as Sri Lankans tend to wear different clothing from that of Indians. Ahluwallia made many of the costumes in India and brought them to Sri Lanka with her. In her usual organized and regimented way she had the entire department set up in a large room in the basement of the crew hotel within days of her arrival.
The background score for the film was created by the incomparable Mychael Danna whose compositional scope provided the range to deal with reflective and intimate scenes involving one or two characters as well as those of more epic proportions with thousands of extras. The Indian songs, which are utilized as background for many scenes, were composed by A.R. Rahman, India's most accomplished and lauded film composer. Danna had worked with Rahman before and took great pleasure in merging Rahman's songs with his own background score so as to create a seamless soundscape.
Director & Screenwriter DEEPA MEHTA
Deepa Mehta was born in India and received a degree in philosophy from the University of New Delhi. In 1991, Mehta produced and directed her first feature film Sam & Me, which won the very first Honorable Mention by the Critics in the prestigious Camera D'Or category at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
In 1992, she directed a one-hour episode of the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (the adventures of Indiana Jones as a boy) produced by George Lucas for ABC television. "Benares" was filmed on location in Benares, India.
In 1993, Mehta directed her second feature film, Camilla, a Canadian / UK co-production.
Mehta directed the final episode of George Lucas's Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in 1994. "Travels with Father" was shot on location in Prague, C.R. and Greece.
Fire, Mehta's third feature film, based on an original screenplay, was written, directed and produced by Mehta.
Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa's critically acclaimed novel, "Cracking India", is the second film in Mehta's trilogy of the elements, Fire, Earth and Water.
Her film Bollywood/ Hollywood opened the Perspective Canada Program at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, in 2003, Mehta co-wrote and directed Republic of Love. In the same year, Mehta won the prestigious CineAsia "Best Director" Award - an acclaim awarded to Steven Spielberg in 2002.
Water, the third film in the elements trilogy, will be released in the fall of 2005. Initially, the film was to be shot in India, but Hindu fundamentalist created riots, burned the sets and issued death threats to the director and actors forcing the film to stop production in early 2000. The film was remounted and completed shooting in Sri Lanka in June 2004.
T THE CAST
Seema Biswas, who plays Shakuntula, attended the National School of Drama in India where she was recognized as one of the most promising actresses on the scene at that time. This early recognition was well-founded as she went on to become an award-winning stage actress across the entire country. Her film debut was as the lead in Bandit Queen, which was