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Filmmaker says 'Water' not intended to elicit sympathy:

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, "Water."

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 romance.

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 corpse.

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 Chuyia?

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 society?

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.

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