Deepa Mehta's Water swells with emotion, courage and indignation
by John Estherent, Vision Magazine
Deepa Mehta's Water is a controversial and moving film about India's ashrams, a place where females of various ages have been sentenced to live apart from society after the deaths of their husbands. The third installment of Mehta's trilogy–following Fire and Earth–Water is filled with tragedy, emotions, and humor as the film focuses on one young widow's impact at an ashram while, on a larger scale, Mahatma Gandhi's liberating ideas are on the move.
Unable to count beyond the number 10, 8-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) is already a widow. As an economic burden masked as religious tradition, the female child is brought to a dilapidated ashram where her hair will be shorn, her clothes exchanged for white robes, and her time used in renunciation. That is her lifelong predicament.
Unable to comprehend these turbulent personal transformations, the precocious Chuyia ignites a rebellious spark in some of the other inhabitants. In particular, Chuyia befriends the devout Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), and Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful woman who has been pimped into prostitution by the domineering head widow, Madhumati (Manorma).
Thanks to Chuyia, Kalyani meets Narayan (John Abraham) a Gandhi nationalist who rejects patriarchy, fundamentally and in practice. Against society's expectations, Kalyani and Narayan fall in love.
But this is India, 1938, and there are thousands of years of brutal tradition coursing through everyone's veins; and no little girl, no beautiful woman and no enlightened man alone can uproot a patriarchal system bent on using religion to control the female population. Everyone will pay a price.
Due to death threats by religious extremists who called the film “anti-Hindu,” Mehta initially had to stop production after a couple of days of shooting Water. She would not start shooting the film until years later–in Sri Lanka–after her anger at the censorship had subsided and new financing discovered.
An international award-winning filmmaker whose credits include Sam & Me, Camilla, and Bollywood Hollywood, Mehta was born in India and received a degree in philosophy from the University of New Delhi. This Hindu now lives in Canada. Vision Magazine recently caught up with Mehta in Los Angeles for an exclusive interview.
Vision Magazine: It took you years to make this film. Could you explain what happened in the beginning?
Deepa Mehta: After six weeks of preparation and shooting for two days, mobs started to descend on the set, protesting the script was anti-Hindu. We tried to save it and resurrect it because it made no sense. I don't know if you're acquainted with mobs, but I've never heard of a mob sitting down to read a script. We couldn't get protection and I realized I didn't want to do it in India. I was angry. The protests were so violent. There were death threats, effigies being burned, lives being threatened, the cast was threatened and it was very tumultuous. So I decided not to do it until I stopped feeling angry about what had happened. It took four years for that anger to dissipate. I did other films. I realized it wasn't personal. It's a reflection of fundamentalism all over the world. We couldn't shoot in India. The financiers did not want to risk it so we shot in Sri Lanka.
VM: You mentioned the anger caused by the film's subject. When I watched this film I was angry at the injustice right from the start. Yet at the screening I heard people laugh whenever they perceived an outlet. What can we make of people's need to laugh in the face of tragedy?
DM: I think it's a very human reaction. If life is grim, whether it's the concentration camps or the direst states human beings find themselves in, there's always some kind of humor. It might be dark. That's the only way we can reaffirm our humanity. So it feels extremely appropriate that they would laugh.
VM: Do you think it is an urge on any level to escape responsibility?
DM: Not at all. I'm kinder to human beings than you are, obviously [laughs]. I didn't make the film so people would feel they have to be responsible. It's a cinematic experience. It's about using religion to oppress people for personal benefit.
VM: Gandhi and his movement is the backdrop to the film. What kind of effect do you think his ideas of non-violent resistance had on women's rights in India?
DM: He was assassinated 10 years later so he didn't have much impact. He focused on liberating India from the British. I think he's a great man because he also recognized that we had to change within our own society. The backdrop of Water is the social order of India being changed from within. I think he would have had a larger opportunity if he hadn't been assassinated by Hindu extremists in 1948.
VM: Some people think your take on Chuyia's situation was a bit lighthearted. Do you think that is a fair observation?
DM: Whatever anyone wants to feel, they should be free to do that. If I wanted to make something [harsher], I would have made a documentary. It's not a documentary. It's not a dissertation. It's a film.
VM: What can we make of the fact that many of the women in the film played a role in their own oppression?
DM: It happens all over the world. When you look at women in prisons, when you look at women even in concentration camps or prison camps. Men too. It's a human trait. We actually oppress ourselves when we find ourselves in a situation. Men take part in their own oppression. I try to portray what I think is real.
VM: Some may find the film does not offer a wide enough historical, political spectrum; that it's too personal. Obviously you can't include everything you want into a two-hour film.
DM: Absolutely not. One of my favorite directors of all time is Luis Bunuel. He said when a film is specific that's the minute it starts getting universal. That's why Water has had such a wide resonance. It has crossed the leaps of being “just Indian.” People can link it to their own experiences.
VM: Many of these girls are forced into these marriages for economic reasons at a young age. Why reproduce if you're going to give your child away so young?
DM: You're talking about a culture in India that goes back 2000 years. What you should do is read a book called Perpetual Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India by Martha Alter Chen. You don't know if you're going to have a girl or boy child. Finally, it's really about logic. If you have a girl or a boy it's going to be different, but you don't know. If one of those tests where you could find out the sex of the child was readily available in the 1930s, many people would not have had girl children, as they don't even now. It's a liability.
VM: Do you think there has been any enlightenment or change in the culture?
DM: Yes, but
change takes a long time. This is endemic. It's the marriage between the moral code of behavior as well as religion, which is a very incestuous marriage in the first place because it gets socially ingrained throughout. To get rid of that it takes a lot of work and time. There are certain things that have really improved. First of all, there are very few child marriages. I've never seen, in all my research in all the ashrams I've been to, any child widows. So that's great. And some of the younger widows that go to the ashrams don't even shave their hair. Women activists on a grassroots level teach them skills in order to make them economically independent. Unless you can be economically independent, you don't have a choice. It will take time, but at least it [has] started.
More information on Deepa Mehta's Water can be found at the official film site http://water.mahiram.com.