Filmmaker's Long Road Ends with 'Water' Filmmaker Deepa Mehta talks about the threats of violence surrounding the making of her latest film, Water, the third in a triology that began with Fire and Earth.The film, which started shooting in 2000, is set in 1938 Colonial India against the backdrop of Mahatma Ghandi's rise to power.

Filmmaker's Long Road Ends with 'Water'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

It wasn't long after Director Deepa Mehta began filming the movie Water in India that the trouble began. The film, which started shooting in the year 2000, is set in 1938 as Gandhi's anti-colonial campaign begins to gather steam in India.

Against that backdrop, the movie tells the story of an eight-year-old child bride who suddenly finds herself a widow, and is forced to share the appalling fate of Hindu women whose husbands die before them. Critics of the film claimed it was blasphemous. Hindu extremists torched the movie sets in the banks of the Ganges river. Mehta received death threats.

With more threats of violence, the Indian government forced the India-born Canadian filmmaker to shut down production with only six minutes of footage in the can. It took five years and a move to another country to finish filming.

Now, Water is in the United States. It's the third in Mehta's elemental category--the trilogy, rather. The film and its filmmaker are our guest today. If you have questions for Director Deepa Mehta, or you can tell us about life in India for widows today, give us a call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us talk@npr.org.

And Deepa Mehta joins us now from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. And it's a great pleasure to welcome you to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. DEEPA MEHTA (Filmmaker): Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Your film is about religion and politics. But remarkably, for a movie that's caused so much of a ruckus, it's basically a love story.

Ms. MEHTA: Absolutely true. And that just shows you what, how much fundamentalists know when they torch something, very little. I mean, I don't know how acquainted you are with mobs, but I've never heard of mobs reading scripts and deciding what the nature of the script is.

CONAN: And it was mobs who attacked your film sets in India in 2000?

Ms. MEHTA: Yes. I believe it was around, a mob of around 12,000 people that threw our sets in the river and burned my effigy. And it was all very unpleasant.

CONAN: I can imagine also very expensive. I don't think you produce money on budgets that Steven Spielberg would be familiar with. And this must have caused quite a problem.

Ms. MEHTA: It sure did. I mean, the producers, when we resurrected Water, you know, five years later, were really cautious about wanting to film and not wanting to film in India again. And that's why we filmed in Sri Lanka instead.

CONAN: And the film has now been completed. As you look back on it, though, I found it curious reading an interview with you, and you said, basically, in India, the government has to approve any film that's going to be shot in the country. People look at the script and approve it.

But you said the same people who approved your film, and, of course, wanted you to spend the money and employ all these people and do all of that, but the same people or the same governmental departments were also the people who were agitating against you.

Ms. MEHTA: Well, it's about irony, I guess, Neal. You don't have--if you want to make a film in India and you aren't an Indian citizen, then you have to submit your script to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. And they go through it with a very fine-tooth comb in order to ensure that there's nothing derogatory or detrimental about Indians or India in the script. And then you get the permission.

And we got the permission from the government, which was the BJP government in India then, right-wing government. And the people who protested and said that the film script was anti-Hindu, there was no film then, was the culture of the very government, the RSS and its affiliates, the VHP and the (unintelligible).

CONAN: Now, one of your critics is quoted as saying about you, I think, they come with foreign money to make a film that shows India in a poor light because that is what sells in the west. The west refuses to acknowledge our achievements in any sphere, but is only interested in our snake-charmers and child brides. And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them.

How do you respond when somebody says that?

Ms. MEHTA: I don't, because I think to respond to something that I find is, it's childish and it's about giving themselves publicity. I really don't want to even talk about it.

CONAN: In fact, as you come away from this movie, the thing that seems to demand publicity is not just that this is an historical movie set in 1938 in this terrible situation afflicting widows of Hindus, but this goes on today.

Ms. MEHTA: It does. You know, there are Hindu widows, and except there aren't any child widows. And one of the protagonists of the film--there are four protagonists, actually--is a child widow. And you just don't see that anymore. Child marriages are banned and have been illegal for some time.

And, you know, if they happen, they happen so rarely. And so you don't see any children who are widows, (unintelligible) children. And also, some of the younger widows who come into (unintelligible) or institutions that, you know, don't have to shave off their hair.

And what's fabulous is that in the last 10 years, a lot of work is being done on a grass-root level with widows to make them more economically independent, teach them skills, because only if you're economically independent do you have a choice.

And the point is that they don't have a choice, because certain moral codes or a certain--I guess it's a misinterpretation of Hinduism in many ways that's, you know, that's led to them behaving and acting in a certain way, or even living a life, which is a life of pretty marginalized. And it's a life (unintelligible).

CONAN: Tell us--I don't think most people in the west understand the degree to which these widows who have done nothing wrong other than their husbands died, the degree to which they're outcast.

Ms. MEHTA: Well, I mean, it's not only about Hindu widows. I mean, it happens in any (unintelligible) religion where you, if you go to even Christianity or Catholicism or Islam, you know, in the name of religion, historically, women have been oppressed. And that's what it's about.

And it's about economics. And it's about--in our case, in India, we have joint families. And joint families have joint where families live together, and they have joint incomes and they share that income.

So if, say, a brother dies, I mean, it's far more expedient to use that misrepresentation of the religion to send the widow off into a (speaks foreign language) or an institution rather than, you know, share the wealth with her.

This oppression doesn't belong to Hinduism, you know, alone. And if you've seen the Magdalene Sisters, it talks about Catholicism in the same way.

CONAN: Deepa Mehta is our guest. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line. This is Kaizod(ph) in Columbus, Ohio.

KAIZOD (Caller): Yes. Hello. Thank you for taking my call. Deepa, I'm originally from Bombay, India. And I've been a huge fan of your work for a very long time.

And I'm really, really glad that you finally got the film made up in following the sort of, you know, shenanigans that have been going on on the part of the Indian government.

Just on a sort of a personal note, I have been producing events, The Vagina Monologues in India for the last two and a half years with my mother with a production company that we have there, and have run into the same issues with many of the same elements, you know, of the government, from being sued to being taken to court for corrupting the morality of the Indian culture.

And so it's, you know, it's a persistent battle of sort of censorship that comes from the extreme religious, you know, right-wing sort of misrepresentations of Hinduism and certain political factions wanting to sort of make publicity out of somebody else's hardship.

So I just wanted to congratulate you on that. And, you know, I will also actually get to see the film for the first time in Columbus as part of the Deep Focus International Film Festival this weekend. And so I can't...

Ms. MEHTA: Oh, that's great.

KAIZOD: Yes.

Ms. MEHTA: That's great. Thank you so much.

KAIZOD: Oh, it's a pleasure.

Ms. MEHTA: You know, the point is that when this happens, and it happens to your production or it happens to a film or it happens to (unintelligible) paintings getting burned, or history books getting rewritten. I mean, we all know about fundamentalist religions and how they flex their muscles for personal gain and to get publicity.

I mean, that's why, Neal, I didn't want to engage in that question.

CONAN: Yes, I can understand that. All right. Let me put it this way, are you going to make future films in India?

Ms. MEHTA: Of course. I mean, I live in India, and, you know, spend half the year in India. And I've been doing that. And when the fundamentalists shut down the film, I never felt that India shut down the film.

India for me is as much a home as Canada is. And my parents live there. I have a home there. My family is there. And I feel very comfortable saying that--and very proud to say I'm an Indian and a Canadian. And of course I'll make a film there.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Sumit(ph), I hope I'm getting that correctly, in Tallahassee.

SUMIT (Caller): Yes, that's true.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SUMIT: Hi. My name is Ahmadan(ph). I go to school in Florida. That's Tallahassee, Florida. And originally, I'm from New Delhi. And my mom was a widow. I lost my dad when I was only one year old.

And I really don't think that the way Ms. Mehta is actually trying to say that widows are oppressed and all, I don't think that's true. I mean, a lot has changed. It might be true for 1938. But I don't think it applies to 2006. A lot has changed since then, so I really think that she needs to take that into consideration, too.

Ms. MEHTA: Well, I mean, I think that, you know, if we--you know, we generally want to not pay attention or have collective amnesia about things that might be unpleasant. But I really feel that India is in a position of strength right now, if it's ever been that economically, you know, with--you know, people call India the office of the world. It's the economic things have been going really strongly.

And if at this point in our lives we don't, or at this point in the position in history, we don't want to look at something that's unpleasant and do something about it, then we never will.

And we're in a position of strength. I mean, you can ignore the fact that, or you might say, that it didn't exist for your mother, which is really good. I mean, obviously it depends if your mother is upper middle class, it's not going to hurt her.

But, you know, perhaps you should read a book called Perpetual Mourning by Martha Chen. And she is absolutely the person who has written the most definitive work about widows in contemporary India, or look at Moheni Garis'(ph) papers or look at Janice Servaso's(ph) work that she is doing with widows.

I did say widows, you know, not as improving, but it's still pretty dismal. And we should definitely do something about it instead of denying it.

CONAN: Deepa Mehta joined us from the studios of Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta, Georgia. Her new film is Water, the last in a trilogy which includes Earth and Fire. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. MEHTA: My pleasure.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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