The director and star talk about the very deep and spiritual film
When a director makes a movie, there are many things to consider - budget, cast, crew, and location. Most of the time, the location is the least of their problems. But in the case of the new film, Water, director and writer Deepa Mehta came across an enormous problem when it came to where she was shooting.
Water takes place in the late 1930's in India; it's about the mental and physical torture widows faced in the country. They were forced to live in ashrams in poverty, in drastic cases slavery, for the sake of religion. The film focuses on two main stars, Lisa Ray and newcomer Sarala as they form a bond dealing with all the chaos.
The award-winning helmer of Earth and Fire ran into her stiffest opposition before she could even get off the ground with the film. Water was originally shot in India, Mehta's native country, in 2000 amidst major controversy. The BGP, the Indian military in charge at the time, violently shut down production on the movie; they burned sets and forced Deepa to re-think her plans.
However, with the problems Deepa faced, she was determined to move forward. "I didn't think for a second that it wouldn't get made; I always knew it would get made. The question was when, and for that when we were violently shut down in Baranasi in 2000; what happened was I had the opportunity to mount the film again and shoot it in different provinces in India. I went to them and I told them, and I realized 'wait a minute, what I was mad at was us getting shut down, the death threats, the sets being destroyed.' If I took all that anger out on the script, essentially I would destroy it because it would be my personal baggage being imposed on the story that didn't need that extra baggage. So I promised myself I wouldn't make Water until I stopped being angry and it took four years for that anger not to dissipate. And once it did, it took three months and we were shooting in Sri Lanka."
The story of how Lisa got attached is a bit on the unusual side; four years after the initial plans for the movie, Deepa sent Lisa the script. Lisa was studying in London; the English government has a very strict policy against working while going to school. Luckily, they made an exception. "I had heard about Water the first time she tried to shoot it in India in 2000 and production was shut down; I wasn't involved in the film at that time. She sent it under a working title, like River Moon, something really cheesy like that. A couple pages into it, I realized this was the script for Water; by the time I finished reading the script, I was weeping. This was one of the most compelling scripts I had ever read. So there was no reason not to do this film."
It was the second time Lisa worked with Deepa; the first was on the Indian comedy, Bollywood/Hollywood, a very different film than this film. "Water was such a journey and such a passionate film for her that by the time we got to the set, I've never seen Deepa so happy and cheerful as she was while we were shooting Water. It was a film she shot from her heart; she was like a child playing in a sandbox. In fact, she was even more relaxed then she was on the set of Bollywood/Hollywood."
Water has recently been screened in India already at some of the major film festivals in the country; the reaction Deepa has received has been amazing. "It was the opening film of one of our most important film festivals called Kerala Film Festival; it was an outdoor screening with over 5000 people, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. I'm sure there were people who hated it, but they wouldn't come say that to me at the end; it was so positive."
The most important response she got was from a member of the BGP, the same government who shut the production down in 2000. "He came over to me and said, 'I want to apologize to you for what our government did because the film doesn't deserve that.' And that was lovely. It's been shown at private screenings, and not without any incident. It will be released in India in July; as to what the reaction will be when it comes out, who knows? I can just cross my fingers and hope."
Throughout the shoot, Lisa knew she was working on something special. "It kind of happens on a gut level; I just feel it was done in the right spirit, the stars aligned. It was Deepa's passion and because she wasn't doing it out of vengeance against the people who had stopped her. Her passion fired everyone with the film, from the crew to the cast; the cinematography is beautiful and is part of the cast. Our cinematographer took some chances, and we all pushed ourselves because of Deepa."
Today in India, the same problems still exist; as Deepa explained, this film took place 60 years ago. "There are over 1 billion people in the country, so there's no real count but there's about 11 million still under similar conditions; they're told they're auspicious. And to live your life as auspicious, is inhumane and without dignity, which is extremely important to live; that's what's so important to me."
Deepa says things are changing, however, in a positive way. "Even the younger widows who come to the ashrams now don't shave their heads. The other thing that's encouraging that's being done by activists is they're trying to make them financially independent; because when you're not financially independent, you have no choices and the point is to give them choices. I'm really pleased."
It will most likely be an uphill struggle for a long time in the country. Hopefully, this film will make people more aware of the situation. Lisa told me what she wants audiences to take away from it. "If you only see this film as widows in the 1930's, then you're missing the point. I think there's a universality of it; we're looking at a very specific period of time, and you get to understand how the human condition is the same all around. We all have the same desires and wishes. But if I had to narrow it down, Water would be a subject that happens everywhere, and it happens in different forms; I've had people come to me and tell me this happens to me. But, I don't want to preempt the film; I just want people to come out and see the film and make their own decision."
Water is in select cities now; a wider release is coming soon. It's rated PG-13.