Frosty Interviews Deepa Mehta

     April 27, 2006

Over many years Deepa Mehta has struggled to make the film Water. When she first started the voyage to bring this story to the screen in India, the film’s production was attacked by Hindu extremists and ultimately forced to shut down.

Filled with anger over the process, she decided to wait until her emotions had subsided so she could make an honest film, instead of one that was filled with rage. By waiting until the time was right, I think she has delivered an important and honest look at the plight of widows within the Hindu religion.

Water takes place in the late 1930’s, at a time of upheaval in India when Gandhi was beginning his ascension to prominence. At the time in India, child marriage was still an accepted part of society and practiced regularly. The problem was that when a husband died, the widow would not be allowed to remarry, and instead of starting over she would be forced to live in ashrams, or institutions, where other widows just like her would live out their days. Now imagine you were a child, maybe around the age of eight, and one day your parents told you that you were getting married. Now imagine a few weeks go by and all of a sudden your husband dies. For the rest of your life you are forced to live in an institution and not remarry, not able to do anything more except pray. The film Water follows an eight-year-old widow on just such a journey.

Water is an important film, and one that needs to be viewed to understand that even though we live in the 21st century, there are places in this world where the freedoms that you and I take for granted, are still very much beyond the reach for millions.

Below is an interview I did with Deepa Mehta about a week ago. As you listen you will hear three different people, I am one of them. After Deepa, our little group got to interview Lisa Ray, and that interview will go up in the next day or so.

I really recommend listening to Deepa speak, as she wrote and directed a great film. While I love going to the movies for mindless entertainment every summer, I also think it is extremely important to contrast the numbness with something that is so very important.

Before I provide the link to listen to the audio, below is the statement Deepa made in regards to making this film. Normally I might not include something like this, but she explains exactly why she made this film and how it all came about. This is in case you don’t have the time to listen to her speak, her statement is a perfect read to know about her reasons why she had to make this film.

If you live in the Los Angeles area, WATER will open at the following theatres this Friday:

Monica – Santa Monica.

Pacific Arclight – Hollywood.

Paseo Camarillo Cinemas – Camarillo.

And in the following theaters in Los Angeles area on May 5th:

Laemmle’s Fallbrook 7 – West Hills.

Town Center – Encino.

South Coast VillageSanta Ana, CA.

Playhouse – Pasadena, CA.

Water will also open in New York and San Francisco on April 28th and will be nationwide June 30th.

To listen to the interview click here. If you wish to save it for later, right click the link and save it to your computer.

Also if you want to see the trailer you can watch it here.



There are some images that become indelible in our minds. One such image that has stayed with me for 10 years is that of a Hindu widow in the Holy Indian city of Varanasi. Bent like a shrimp, her body wizened with age, white hair shaved close to her scalp, she scampered on all fours, furiously looking for something she had lost on the steps of the Ganges. Her distress was visible as she searched amidst the early morning throng of pilgrims. She was paid scant attention to, not even when she sat down to cry, unsuccessful in her attempt to find whatever she had lost. It was this image of a widow, sitting on her haunches, arms outstretched on her knees, head bowed down in defeat that became imprinted in my mind and led to the idea of a screenplay which was to become the film WATER.

I was in Varanasi directing an episode of YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES, a television series for George Lucas. As a part of prep, I spent early mornings at the banks of the Ganges trying to get a feel for the city that attracted pilgrims from all over India. Amongst them were Hindu widows who, because of convoluted religious beliefs, were relegated to a life of deprivation and indignity. They came to Varanasi to die. Dying by the banks of the holy river guaranteed them instant salvation.

Though a Hindu myself, Hindu widows remained a bit of an anomaly to me until I started researching them for WATER, the third film in my elemental trilogy of FIRE and EARTH. Their plight moved me enormously. These women lived out their lives as prescribed by a religious text that was nearly two thousand years old.

WATER is set in India in the late 1930s when the practice of child marriage was still prevalent. Young girls were often wed to older men for economic reasons. When the men died, they left behind young widows who were farmed out to ashrams (institutions). Considered a financial burden by their families, this was generally the fate of most widows. I decided to follow an eight-year-old widow and her life in an ashram where her presence starts to disrupt and affect the lives of the other residents, particularly Shakuntala, Kalyani, and the eighty-year old Patiraji.

In the year 2000, armed with the requisite permissions and script approval from the government of India, we assembled the cast and crew of WATER in Varanasi. After six weeks of pre-production we started to shoot on the banks of the river Ganges. Two days into the shoot, what transpired next was unexpected and unprecedented. Overnight, violent protests by Hindu fundamentalists erupted in the city.

Accusations of WATER being anti-Hindu were cited as the cause of the film sets being thrown in the river, my effigy being burned, and protesters marching in the streets of Varanasi, denouncing the film and its portrayal of Hindu widows. Nobody had read the script. Bewildered by the turn of events, we tried to muster help from the state government who had given the script its approval, but to no avail. Amidst escalating protests and violence and personal death threats we were forced to shut down production.

In retrospect, WATER reflected what was taking place in India in some form or other the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and high intolerance for anything or anybody that viewed it with skepticism. Therefore, we were a soft and highly visible target.

To complete WATER had become a personal mission, but it took four years before David Hamilton, the producer, and myself resurrected the project in Sri Lanka. To risk making the film in India again was dangerous and foolhardy at best. I had to recast. The luminous Nandita Das, the lead in FIRE and EARTH, had to be replaced by the younger Lisa Ray. Seema Biswas, of BANDIT QUEEN fame, accepted Shabana Azmi’s role as Shakuntala. John Abraham, a star from Bollywood would play Narayan, the young Gandhian idealist and the fragile widow Kalayani’s love interest. For the role of eight-year old Chuyia, I found a young girl in Sri Lanka. Sarala came from a small village near Galle. Though she had no experience in front of the camera, she was a “natural.” The challenge was that she spoke neither Hindi nor English. Sarala learned her lines phonetically and I directed her through an interpreter and hand gestures. She was amazing.

Shooting in Sri Lanka was a breeze after our horrendous experience in Varanasi. Giles Nuttgens, who shot FIRE and EARTH was behind the camera again. I think Giles is brilliant. Dilip Mehta did the production design. To create India in Sri Lanka was a daunting task. We decided not to even try to re-create Varanasi. To do so, would have meant the budget going through the roof. Instead, our modest ghats were only a one-third of a mile long peppered with the requisite Hindu temples. Colin Monie cut the film in Toronto. I had seen THE MAGDELENE SISTERS, which he had edited, and felt that he had the right balance of sensitivity and passion.

Now that the film is complete, I can look back on the journey it has taken to make it. The anguish, the death threats, the politics, the ugly face of religious fundamentalism – we experienced them all. Has it been worth it, I often wonder? Then that image of a widow from ten years ago surfaces in my mind, as she sits on the steps by the Ganges, her toothless mouth making gasping sounds of despair. I found out later that she had lost her only pair of spectacles. Without them, she was half blind.

Deepa Mehta

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