Plight of Widows Causes Shock Waves


Mar 29, AUSTRALIA (AUSTRALIAN) The making of "Water" was far from smooth sailing for Indian film-maker Deepa Mehta.

There was nothing fluid about Water, the concluding part of Toronto-based, Indian film director Deepa Mehta's elemental trilogy (Fire, 1996 and Earth, 1998).

Two days into the film's shoot in the holy city of Varanasi in India, more than 2000 hardline Hindu protesters ravaged the set of the movie, issued death threats to the cast and crew of the film, burned effigies of the director and declared her anti-Hindu.

Mehta should not be allowed to make a movie that's critical of Indian cultural attitudes towards widows, they reasoned. According to Hindu scriptures, a widow, labelled as worthless without a husband to measure herself by, should perform the custom of Sati and immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre, or lead a life of self-denial.

Mehta dared to challenge this belief, which she says is a misinterpretation of ancient writings, and decided to make a film about a group of widows living in an ashram in Varanasi. Word got around and filming of the movie was interrupted before it had a chance tobegin.

"Before you make a film in India you have to submit the script to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting," says Mehta, in Sydney to promote the film. "And they look through to make sure there's nothing detrimental or [anything that] offends Indians of any colour, cast, creed, religion.

"They looked at Water and said everything was fine. But two days into the shooting, mobs descended on the set, screaming and shouting that the film was anti-Hindu."

What surprises Mehta most is that none of these people knew what they were protesting against. "None of them knew what [the film] was about," she says. "None of them had read the script. I mean, how many mob members do you know [who] sit down and read a script?"

Support for Mehta, who has lived in Canada for the past 25 years, poured in from all quarters. A serious-looking woman who makes serious films, she has a likeable, easy familiarity in the flesh. Film directors and artists in India protested against the loss of creative freedom and the American film-maker George Lucas placed a full-page advertisement in Variety in support of Mehta.

Yet the battle was lost. Mehta shelved the film and did not go back to the script for the next four years even though, right after the protests, the governments of West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh invited her to shoot in their states. "I was angry at that point and I would have imposed my anger on the script," she says. "And I told myself that I will not shoot this film until I stop being angry. It took four years for that anger to go away."

The shoot for the film eventually took place in 2004 in absolute secrecy in Sri Lanka. "We had lost all our budget [trying to shoot the movie in India]," she says. "So this time we were really careful. The actors were told not to give any interviews. I didn't give any interviews. It was such a liberating experience to shoot it without any political meetings."

Set in 1938, in pre-independence India, Water follows the life of eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) who, in the first scenes of the movie, is told her husband is dead. Her head is shaved, to comply with ancient rituals, and she's sent to an ashram for widows.

There, Chuyia meets 14 other widows, among them Madhumati (Manorama), the corrupt 70-year-old ashram matriarch; Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the only widow whose hair is not shorn as a nod to her profession (prostitution), which she is forced into by Madhumati; and Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who, toughened by years of deprivation, has begun to question the rituals.

They are the same rituals that Mehta questions. "There are 34 million widows in India," she says. "And a good number of them in places such as Varanasi and Vrindavan are in such terrible conditions. The whole system is so corrupt. It's really oppressive and very difficult for a woman to stay sane."

Water was not Mehta's first controversy. In 1996, the first part of her elemental trio, Fire, showed a lesbian relationship for the first time in Indian cinema. The nationwide release of the film sent Hindu extremists into such a blinding rage they set fire to theatres in Delhi and Mumbai. The film was banned.

To be fair to her critics, Mehta had gone looking for trouble by naming the two leading female characters of her film after religious figures: one was called Radha (the girlfriend of Lord Krishna from Mahabharata), the other, Sita (the wife of Lord Ram from Ramayana). Hindu groups believed this was a deliberate degradation of their beliefs.

Mehta says it was not. "Both Radha and Sita are tragic heroines," she says. "Radha almost ended her life in pining for Krishna, who eventually married someone else. And Sita, who went to a voluntary exile for 14 years to be with her husband, was accused of bad character. But I didn't want my Radha and my Sita to be tragic heroines. I wanted them to be treated well. I don't want any Indian woman to be a tragic heroine. I want her to be a full human being, to have the same dignity that we give to a Ram or a Krishna."

Earth was released in 1998. Based on Bapsi Sidhwa's book, Cracking India, it dealt with the partition of India at the end of the British Raj in 1947.

"It was during the filming of Fire that I decided to extend it into a trio," Mehta says. "There were no specific messages that I wanted to give. I just felt strongly about these subjects and decided to turn them into films.

"If I am a lesbian or if I am a homosexual, does that mean that I am not a human being? That's the big question I went looking for an answer for."

Mehta, now 55, says she feels "incredible satisfaction" on having completed the trio. She has already started work on her next project, Exclusion, to be shot later this year.

"It's about a historical incident involving Punjabi Sikh descendants that took place in Canada in 1914 and for me it [this project] is like India and Canada coming together," she says.


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