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Making the Water Flow

April 2006
Making the Water Flow

Deepa Mehta is no stranger to controversy. Fire, the first film in her so-called ‘elements' trilogy, caused a sensation when mobs belonging to the Shiv Sena party, objecting to a same-sex theme that they saw as taboo, vandalized movie theaters in Mumbai and Delhi. But apparently the words ‘cow' and ‘bow' don't belong in Mehta's vocabulary, and a decade later, the feisty filmmaker can take much satisfaction in the fact that a movie such as My Brother Nikhil – which also explores a gay theme – generated no fuss in India and even found easy acceptance among mainstream audiences. As she said last month in an interview with Khabar, many changes – a new central government being one of them – have taken place in India over the past decade. So in some respects, Mehta has been ahead of the curve among desi directors making movies in Indian languages.

��� The firestorm over Fire, though, was nothing compared to what happened when she began shooting the final film in her trilogy. After completing Earth, a successful adaptation of Bapsi Sidhwa's powerful novel (Cracking India) set in Lahore during the subcontinent's partition, Mehta chose Varanasi as the location for her next film. What triggered her interest in the widows living there was a sight she couldn't forget for the next ten years. On the steps of the Ganges, Mehta spotted a shrunken old woman who was desperately looking for something she'd lost (see film review). "It was the 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," she says.

��� Having approved Mehta's project, the Indian government even provided 300 soldiers for protection after fanatical chauvinists, declaring the film "anti-Hindu," turned violent and destroyed the set in Varanasi. One estimate put the loss at $500,000. A shaken Mehta, whose effigy was burned and who received death threats, pointed out that these protesters hadn't even read the script. Following a failed suicide attempt by one of the agitators, the Uttar Pradesh government, claiming that "public safety" was at issue, shut the production down. Seeking relief from the turmoil, a disheartened Mehta went on to make a frothy comedy titled Bollywood/Hollywood, starring Lisa Ray and Rahul Khanna. However, the tenacious (and not easily intimidated) filmmaker, bent on realizing her dream, returned to her trilogy four years later, though this time she chose to shoot in Sri Lanka. And as an added precaution, she used River Moon as the working title.

��� Being the daughter of a film distributor in Delhi, Mehta's passion for the silver screen was kindled early. Armed with an M.A. in philosophy, she emigrated to Canada in 1973 and years later made her debut film, Sam and Me, which examines race through the prism of a complex friendship between an Indian Muslim and an elderly Jewish man. Mehta, though, eschews the ‘crossover' label and a movie like Bollywood/Hollywood remains an exception, often coming across as a parody rather than a genuine attempt to fuse two distinct genres. More typically, she's able to immerse herself fully in her milieu, whether it's in India or the West, and produce movies that can have cross-cultural appeal without losing their authenticity. If the trilogy deals exclusively with Indian themes and characters, two of her other films – Camilla and The Republic of Love – dwell on Western characters in North American settings.

��� Anybody who has seen Mehta's films will not be surprised by her continuing interest in what can be described as hot-button issues. Her recent documentary, Let's Talk About It, looks at the problem of domestic abuse among immigrant families in Canada.

��� Mehta's Water has been earning accolades at film festivals around the world and it recently bagged the Golden Kinnarre award in Bangkok. The title of her movie doubles as a recurring metaphor in the story. "Water can flow or water can be stagnant," she adds in her statement. "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 2000 years old. Even today, people follow these texts, which is one reason why there continue to be millions of widows. To me, this is a kind of stagnant water. I think traditions shouldn't be that rigid. They should flow like the replenishing kind of water."

��� One might add that as a filmmaker, despite – or even because of – all the setbacks, Deepa Mehta has proved to be remarkably adept at making the water flow in her direction.

By Murali Kamma

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