Water: Interview with Director Deepa Mehta

From the provocative filmmaker Deepa Mehta comes Water, the moving and vibrant story of Indias widow houses, where women of all ages are taken to live (even today) apart from society following the deaths of their husbands.
Sprinkled with humor, rife with universal emotions and visually alive, the story of Watrer follows three widows who dared to stand up for themselves in the liberating time of Mahatma Gandhi.

Seven years in the making, the film was nearly undone by fierce political controversy when the films India-based production triggered violent protests by Hindu fundamentalists and was forced to shut down and remount the production years later, under a shroud of secrecy in the neighboring country of Sri Lanka. At the films debut, opening the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, Mehtas unflinching and passionate work resulted in a rousing standing ovation and critical acclaim.

Set against the vividly colorful backdrop of colonial Indias final days in the late 1930s, Water takes place in one of Indias infamous houses for Hindu widows, where women of all ages who have lost their husbands–and thus are labeled as worthless to society–live out their lives in solitude and shame. Although the films story takes place decades ago, during a time of idealism and rapid change as India fights for independence, the living conditions and alienation the characters endure in Water remain a continuing reality in the young democracy even today.

According to ancient Hindu texts, a woman whose husband dies before she does has three choices: she can throw herself on his funeral pyre and die with him; she can marry his brother, if one is available; or she can live out the rest of her days in seclusion and renunciation. The rules traditionally applied even to the very youngest of brides in the 1930s that meant girls as young as five or six who had been matched to a suitor for the future by their families and may never have even met their husbands. Technically, Indian widows of any age have had the legal right to remarry since the 19th century, but in practice this all too often has not been allowed.

With some 33 million widows throughout the country–the highest number of any country in the world today–the problem is still shockingly widespread. Although the Hindu tradition of sati, in which a widow is called upon to set fire to herself on her husbands grave, has long been outlawed, today many widows (especially those from rural areas) still find themselves ritually humiliated, ostracized by their families and leading lives of intense poverty on the outskirts of society, often as beggars or prostitutes.

The question of culturally-mandated oppression of widows in modern India continues to be an explosive, hot-button issue, as was clearly evidenced by the aggressive reaction of Hindu fundamentalists upon hearing of Deepa Mehtas intention to make a movie exploring the widows long-hidden lives.

Born in India, Mehta now makes her home in Canada but continues to tell powerful stories about and set within her native land. She wrote the lyrical Water to complete a consistently fearless trilogy of films shot in India that began with the acclaimed Fire, about two women trapped in loveless and repressive marriages who fall in love, and Earth, the story of a group of religiously diverse friends divided by the partition of Pakistan and India. Mehta had already roused the wrath of Hindu fundamentalists with Fire, which ironically spurred some angry individuals to set theatres showing the film on fire.

Mehta expected there to be some resistance to Water, but she could not have predicted what happened next. Weeks into filming in the holy city of Varanasi, a furious mob of angry protestors led by the Hindu fundamentalist political party Raksha Sangharsh Simiti (RSS), set fire to the sets, threatened the crews safety and brought production to a screeching halt. Arguing that Mehta was attempting to diminish India in the eyes of other countries, RSS claimed the film needed to be stopped by any means.

The Indian government publicly decried this blatant effrontery to free speech and provided 300 troops to protect Mehta and the production. But it was to no avail. Following an attempted suicide jump into the Ganges by a protestor, the local government shut down the production under the rubric of Public Safety.

The international film community was outraged, with director George Lucas taking out a full-page ad in Variety in support of Mehta and her right to free speech. But this still had little effect on the radical fundamentalists or the local government and protests raged on even long after production had stopped. To her great despair, Mehta had no choice but to put the film that meant so much to her on hold.
Mehta continued working, directing the international hit romantic comedy BOLLYWOOD/HOLLYWOOD and the adaptation of the Carol Shields novel THE REPUBLIC OF LOVE in Canada. Yet, she remained steadfastly committed to bringing WATER to the screen, saying that she felt the trilogy had to be completed. At last, five years after she had first attempted to make the film, Mehta was able to return to WATER with an entirely new cast in an entirely new country – by moving the production to Sri Lanka and, even there, filming under a phony title and a cloak of secrecy to protect her cast and crew.

WATER takes place in 1938, a pivotal time in Indias history as Mohandas Gandhis civil disobedience movement to gain independence from British rule began to gain vigorous momentum. As a national icon of idealism, it was Gandhi who also first brought the struggles of Indias widows, child brides and the general oppression of Indian women to the fore. He believed that India would have to leave behind its caste system and other socially oppressive Hindu customs to become a strong democracy. Though he was a religious Hindu, he famously said that Truth is my God. He inspired many to pursue lives of greater freedom.

A Hindu herself, Mehta believes that there is only good to be gained from continuing to expose and talk about these same religious and cultural traditions that still oppress women decades after the era of Gandhi. I simply want to make films that are thought-provoking, that help to understand society better, she says. It is others who create the controversy.

In writing the story, Mehta took inspiration not only from the rousing era of Gandhi and the stoic lives of the widows she had come to meet and develop deep affection for in India, but from the very essence of water itself. She always had in mind a fluid, flowing film that, like a river, would wind its way through many twists and turns towards something larger.

Water as a metaphor runs through the film like a tributary. Water can flow or water can be stagnant, Mehta notes. I set the film in the 1930s but the people in the film live their lives as it was prescribed by a religious text more than 2,000 years old. Even today, people follow these texts, which is one reason why there continue to be millions of widows. To me, that is a kind of stagnant water. I think traditions shouldnt be that rigid. They should flow like the replenishing kind of water.

Although she was at times disheartened, exhausted and even frightened by the dangerous process of making WATER Mehta also believes that the passionate commitment it took to finally make the film had tremendous creative value. When she at last was able to start production uninterrupted in Sri Lanka, she had an even clearer vision of the movie she wanted to bring to the world. I think I had grown during that time and that is reflected in the film itself, she says. I found myself relying more on images and expression to convey emotions and less on dialogue.

Mehta admits that she still receives friendly advice from some in India suggesting that WATER should not be distributed in the West. Those who oppose the film say that audiences outside India will not be able to understand the complex religious and social order of the country and will rush to judgment. But Mehta rejects this notion, believing that WATER is, at heart, a story of human suffering and transcendence that crosses borders and evokes universal themes that continue to be relevant to people all around the world.

When the production of WATER at last re-mounted in Sri Lanka several years after Deepa Mehta had originally tried to make the movie in India, the director had to start anew, taking a fresh approach and re-casting all of the roles. The new ensemble, made up of a mix ranging from non-professional actors to Bollywoods hottest stars, provided Mehta with the wellspring of authentic performances she had been seeking.

The central character of WATER, whose life changes the flow of everything around her, is that of 8 year-old Chuyia whose family married her off as a tiny child to a financially solvent older man only to have the man die, leaving little Chuyia a widow before she could even comprehend the meaning of the word. Following tradition, and with little explanation that could assuage a childs terror, Chuyia is whisked off to a widows ashram and abandoned there in utter confusion and despair. Yet, as the spirited, rebellious, questioning child that she is one playfully described by the widows as having sharp teeth and a sharper imagination — Chuyia carves out a different path.

To find a child actress who could take on the emotional demands of playing Chuyia with the characters innate strength, impishness and charm, Mehta auditioned more than 50 young girls. Among them she discovered the intensely expressive and luminous face of Sarala, a young Sri Lankan from Galle, who had never acted before, let alone been in front of a camera, yet provided a remarkably mature and naturalistic performance. Sarala could not speak Hindi or English, so she had to learn all of her characters dialogue in a painstaking, phonetic, line-by-line process. Because they shared no common language, she could only communicate with the director through an interpreter or hand signals.

And yet something clicked between Mehta and Sarala, because Sarala seemed to intuit exactly the right combination of youthful innocence and unflagging independence that make Chuyia so central to the widows story. She is an amazingly natural talent and truly became the heroine of WATER, says the director.

Equally key to the storys emotionally rich unfolding is Kalyani, the breathtaking young widow who is the only one allowed to keep her long hair (widows heads are traditionally shorn) so that she might work as a prostitute among the rich gentry across the river in Rawalphur a job that leaves her ostracized by the other widows. Before Chuyias arrival, Kalyani accepts her fate simply as karma. But once Chuyia leads the young widow to meet the charismatic and idealistic Gandhi-follower Narayan, awakening both her first romantic feelings and an awareness of whats outside her world, she begins to rebel against the forceful will of the powerful head widow, Madhumati.