New Delhi, January 24, 2007
An Oscars nomination in the 'Best Foreign Language Film' for Deepa Mehta's Water may have evoked much cheer in film circles in India but observers feel that the film making a mark at the prestigious awards will go down in cinematic history more as 'kudos' for Canadian cinema than an achievement for Indian cinema.
In fact, the film’s shoot was stalled in Banaras by Hindutva terrorists, which forced Deepa to shift her location to Sri Lanka with a different name and cast. Even when the film was making raves for its brilliant performances the Indian distributors were afraid to release the film due to threat from hindu extremists. Deepa Mehta's Water deals with widows in Varanasi. Widows were considered bad luck under ancient Hindu tradition. They were not allowed to remarry, although widowers could. Today there are about 33 million widows in India, according to the 2001 census, and many in the rural areas are still treated like the outcasts in the film.
The film, which last evening made it to the final five at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category along with Pan's Labrinth (Mexico), After The Wedding (Denmark), Days of Glory and the German Cold War drama The Lives of Others, did so as an entry from Canada and not India.
In January 2000 Ms. Mehta was forced to shut down production of "Water" in Varanasi, one of India's holy cities on the banks of the Ganges, after Hindutva terrorists protested that the film was anti-Hindu. Producer David Hamilton tells a chilling story about a day early on during production. He and Mehta were on location when reports filtered through that 2000 right-wing extremists had rampaged through the base, setting fire to the sets and throwing them into the river. Mehta's effigy was burned and she was accused of being anti-Hindu.
She appealed to the state government for help, but fearing more violence, local officials asked the film crew to leave. Ms. Mehta was not able to resurrect "Water" until four years later, and only then in neighboring Sri Lanka, where she shot under a fake title, "Full Moon," so as not attract attention. By then Ms. Mehta had to recast the main characters. Mehta believes that Water is a far stronger film than she would have been able to make in 2000.
Ms. Mehta, 55, is no stranger to Hindu protests. Her 1996 film about a lesbian relationship, "Fire," the first in a trilogy, enraged fundamentalists in India. Right-wing Hindu fundamentalist leader Bal Thackeray, leader of the Shiv Sena political party, had done his best to prevent Fire from being shown. Cinemas in Bombay and Delhi were fire-bombed by his supporters, a cinema manager was beaten up and there was widespread vandalism.
"The film had been playing for about four weeks in India before somebody woke up and said this was anti-Hindu because no lesbians exist in India," says Mehta. "For me, it was terrible – a film that had gone through the Indian censors without one cut and which had played successfully all over the world got shut down in my own country. It was heartbreaking."
Her 1998 film, "Earth," about the 1947 partition of India, caused no controversy, but it did contain scenes of the butchery that occurred between Muslims and Hindus at the time.
Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's Rang De Basanti, India's official entry for the Oscars in the category, failed to make it to the shortlist of nine films announced by the Academy last week, just ahead of announcement of the final five nominees.
Also failing to figure in the list of Oscars nominees was Raj Kumar Hirani's Lage Raho Munnabhai, which was sent by its producers as an independent entry. Water is the fourth film by an Indian filmmaker to get a nomination at the prestigious awards, after Mehboob Khan's Mother India (in the 50s), Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay (1988) and Ashutosh Gowarikar's Lagaan ( 2001).
It may be an entry to the Oscars from Canada, but an Oscar for Water would definitely be a 'Feather in the Cap' for Indian cinema, considering that in its over six decade long history, no film has won the coveted Oscar.
Viewed in this sense, an Oscar nomination for Water, starring Bollywood hunk John Abraham and model-turned actor Lisa Ray in lead roles, is in large part a result of the huge promotional efforts for the film by its Canadian producers.
Infact, Mongrel Media and Fox Searchlight, which released the film in Canada and 57 other countries, including the United Kingdom and Denmark, have, in the past few months, launched a vigorous nomination campaign in Hollywood in a bid to seek the attention of the Oscars Academy.
All this, however, does not take away anything from the cinematic merit of the film, dealing with the plight of widows in India in the 1930s. The film has, in the last few years, won critical acclaim at several international film festivals, including being screened to a standing ovation at the Toronto film festival in 2006.
Infact, the film's lead star John Abraham has said the global acclaim for the film has contributed in large part to his popularity in Canada.
"It was great to know that even as we went for Kabul Express, which opened the Toronto International festival last year, people there still recognize you for Water," John says.
Water is also among the few films by a Bollywood filmmaker to secure a theatrical release in the United States and Canada. The film has already brought in 5.6 million Dollars at the North American box office after it played in 150 theaters.
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta said, "I'm thrilled! It means a lot to me. It's a film that's very personal, and we've had such a difficult time with it, so it feels good,"she said.
Clearly elated at her first Oscars nomination, she said,"for me a nomination is what counts… Now it doesn't matter who wins." On chance of Water winning the coveted Oscar, Canadian producer David Hamilton, who produced the film jointly with Mehta, said, "It's a pretty competitive year, there's no question about that… it's going to be interesting."
He said the nomination for Water was a result of a vigorous nomination campaign in Hollywood, which, he says, will now switch into phase two. "You can't convince people to vote for a film but you can remind them that they liked it,"he said.
Water however, is finally expected to release on Feb 23, in India.