film review ***..: Disrupting the Flow
Controversial Film ...Water... Explores The Politics of Hinduism
By Parama Pal
Written and directed by Deepa Mehta
Starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Sarala
Water” is the last installment in Deepa Mehta’s critically acclaimed elements series. As Mehta is one of the most interesting directors of our time, I arrived to the Boston premiere at the Museum of Fine Arts with high expectations. She exceeded them.
The movie was admittedly breathtaking, but the truly amazing experience began after the film, when Mehta spoke to the audience. Seven years in the making, “Water” was surrounded by such controversy that angry mobs stormed the set and threw its pieces into the Ganges River. After that, Mehta continued filming, but in a different country under another title.
“Water,” no ordinary film, is part of the elements series with “Earth” and “Fire.” “Earth” explored the politics of war, “Fire” the politics of sex, and “Water” the politics of religion. “Water” is the story of three widows, and how the Indian Independence movement affects their lives irrevocably, making them question the set of beliefs upon which their existence rests.
Mehta started her presentation by speaking about a particular event that took place eleven years ago, when she was filming another movie in Varanasi. Though Mehta’s mother was a widow, she had lived with Mehta’s family as the head of the household. It was shocking for the filmmaker to see the widows in Varanasi lived in their stark ashrams, or houses of holy retreat. “They were a different kind of widow … [I was] so deeply moved … by how they lived, and why they lived the way they live … it was inevitable that ‘Water’ would be about the widows.” As the session moved on, the floor opened to a question and answer session. Mehta answered thoughtfully and completely, entertaining every question with patience even though it was evident that she had been asked many of them multiple times before.
The first question concerned the setting of the film. “Water” is set in the 1930s — why not now? At that time, Mehta explained, child marriages were still prevalent, and Chuyia, the narrator of the film, is a child widow. The next day, when I spoke to her, she explained that Chuyia was the best possible narrator because “children don’t judge.” Mehta said she also wanted to “capture the fabric of the changing times”; in the late 30s, India was on the cusp of its independence movement and Ghandi’s influence was beginning to spread.
When the discussion moved to casting, Mehta related the story of her search for Sarala, the child actress who plays Chuyia. Extensive searches of children in India yielded actresses who only overacted, Bollywood-style. This drove Mehta to Sri Lanka where she found Sarala, who didn’t even know Hindi and had to learn her lines phonetically. The girl is incredibly talented; Mehta commented on renowned director Satyajit Ray’s advice that when working with children, one needs to make sure they’re very intelligent, and are truly interested in the project.
Next, Mehta explained the controversy surrounding “Water” and how she dealt with it. In India, there is an organization that reviews every script to make sure that it is appropriate for the public and not anti-Indian. “Water” went through its review without a hitch, and in fact, Mehta received a compliment on her wonderful script. She also held extensive meetings with natives of the area she was filming to help them understand her film’s message. Nonetheless, two days into filming, a huge mob encouraged by an extremist religious group showed up near the set, claiming that her film was anti-Hindu. The Indian Army came to protect them during shooting, but the producers were still driven away to Sri Lanka.
I later asked her why she didn’t expect a reaction like that after the controversy that her previous film “Fire,” which was about a lesbian couple. Mehta said a common misconception was that “Fire” had been controversial from the start, when in fact it had been in the box office for four weeks with no reaction until a political party decided that it was wrong. She spoke bitterly about how they used her movie to suit their needs, but said she did not expect a similar backlash from “Water,” because India’s political climate has changed considerably in the last six years. After the experience with the mobs, she was so angry that she feared it would cloud her direction of the script, so she took four years to make sure that she could heal. The controversy, she revealed, made her to believe in the film’s message even more.
The core idea of “Water” is the morality of religious practices, Mehta said. The character Shakuntala, who experiences conflict between faith and conscience, is the truly central figure of the film. Shakuntala must decide whether Kalyani, a widow in the ashram, can marry a man she loves — or prostitute herself to support the ashram. As another example of religion gone wrong, Mehta described the creation of child marriage in the ninth century, when Mongol invaders murdered everyone but married women, so people forced their little girls into wedlock to protect them. By the 1930s, however, it became a way for families to feed one fewer mouth; in short, oppression by the avenue of religion.
Someone asked whether Mehta thought her movies have created awareness, and she happily replied that the reaction to her movie during film festivals was “pretty amazing.” Though movies themselves can’t change much, she admitted, they can begin the dialogue that will lead to that change.