Filmmaker says 'Water' not intended to elicit
No tears for film by Mehta
Lankan child actress Sarala
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta is an unlikely rebel. With her soothing,
motherly manner, she doesn't seem prone to rousing extremist rancor and
causing riots. But that's exactly what she did with her new film,
An Indian-Canadian filmmaker who shoots her movies in both countries
- and whose "Fire"-"Earth"-"Water" trilogy is one of the great
achievements of recent Indian cinema - Mehta is, she says, someone who
lives for making movies, not preaching messages.
Yet, Mehta's lyrical "Water" - a portrait of life in 1938 in an
Indian widow house (or "ashram") as seen mostly through the eyes of an
8-year-old child-bride widow - packs a formidable wallop. So strong was
the reaction of Hindu political-religious extremists when Mehta
initially tried to film "Water" in Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges
River, that violent protests erupted.
Spurred by the film's candid portrayals of the harsh lot of widows
under the old Hindu laws, which forbid almost all remarriage and forced
women into loneliness and penury after their husband's deaths, the
protestors shut down "Water" in 2000. It was eventually reshot by Mehta
five years later in neighbouring Sri Lanka.
What finally emerged - to the delight of festival audiences in both
India and the West - is a sad and lovely mix of realism, politics and
Set during a time when Mohandas K. Gandhi was passively resisting and
shaking the British colonial regime, "Water" boasts a memorable cast of
characters: the spunky child-widow Chuyia (played by the remarkable
amateur Sarala, a Sri Lankan village girl who learned her Hindi dialogue
phonetically), Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow forced into
prostitution by the ashram's corrupt boss - Madhumati (Manorama);
Kalyani's suitor, the handsome Gandhi follower Narayan (John Abraham)
and Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a devout widow who tries to help Chuyia
and Kalyani and suffers a severe crisis of conscience.
(Gandhi is a passing character here, too; his train figures in the
story's moving climax.)
Despite everything, Mehta - whose difficulties with "Water's"
production were chronicled by her daughter, Devyani Saltzman, in the new
book "Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family and Filmmaking"
- insists she doesn't make movies to effect social change. Speaking to
the Tribune recently on a Chicago visit, Mehta quietly avowed, "I didn't
sit down and say `I'm going to make a film that's going to change
society.' I'm not that naive. I don't think that films change anything."
Q. In "Water," it's 1938. And these marriage laws about widows and
ashrams have been around . . .
A. . . . For centuries. There are certain ways dictated by Hinduism
about how widows have to conduct themselves. A woman is the husband's
half-body while he's alive, and when he dies, she becomes half his
That's the basis of it. Without a husband, a woman is nothing. But,
in order to atone for the sins, which cause the husband's death. . . .
She's blamed. She has to spend the rest of her life being ostracized.
Q. This still goes on today?
A. It does go on today. The main protagonist of "Water" is an
8-year-old girl, and child marriages are illegal now. But ashrams, the
institutions where the widows live: there are quite a lot of them. They
say, according to the census of 2001, there were 34 million Hindu
widows. They think the number of them who go to ashrams and live like
this is around 11 million.
Q. Is there any widespread movement against the widow laws?
A. I wouldn't say it's widespread, but it's definitely there. And
it's been gathering momentum in the last five or six years. It's hard to
have reform until you have re-education and financial independence. The
way [the widows] earn their living now is by singing hymns for eight
hours. And begging.
Q. When you were growing up, which filmmakers really inspired you?
A. I was 16 when I first saw a [Satyajit] Ray film . . . "Charulata."
It blew me away.
Q. Did you ever meet Ray?
A. Yes, I did. I was slightly speechless when I was around him,
because he does happen to be my hero. But he was very kind - that's what
I loved about him - and not pretentious.
Q. What's your favorite film?
A. "Charulata." So beautiful, so moving, so sad. And so large at the
same time. And "A Story of Floating Weeds" (1934) by [Yasujiro] Ozu.
Q. How did you find Sarala, the amazing child actress who played
A. I was looking for Chuyia in India. But I found that most of the
kids who had done a bit of work were so heavily influenced by Bollywood
that their normal way of communicating was an emulation of it . . . over
the top. That was very disquieting. So, I thought I'd look in Sri Lanka.
Q. Could you talk about the rest of your cast? Lisa Ray?
A. I really liked Lisa. I needed someone who could convey [Kalyani's]
fragility and purity. She worked really hard and spent a lot of time
with the widows. She's just lovely to work with.
Q. What about Manorama, the great actress who played the bullying old
ashram head widow?
A. She's an extremely well-known character actor. She's been in, I
think, 1,300 films.
Q. How could anyone possibly make 1,300 films?
A. You can in India, where 1,500 films are done a year! She's been
working since she was [a girl]. I always loved her as a kid. She always
played this particular character role I found really charming . . . a
vamp. There's something about her strength and her voice and how
unapologetically cruel she [can be].
Q. And Seema Biswas (star of the Indian hit "Bandit Queen")?
A. I think the film is about Seema really. Seema's character is
fascinating, because that's the central theme of the film: the conflict
of conscience and faith. A woman of great faith slowly realizes she must
listen to her conscience.
Q. How good a chance is there that "Water" will help change Indian
A. That's not the reason I made the movie. I like people to be moved.
... The idea of "Water" isn't for you to feel sorry for someone halfway
across the world. It's for you to look in your own back yard.