Having a storied history directing such TV shows as Young Indiana Jones and films like Earth and The Republic of Love, nothing could have prepared Deepa Mehta for the problems she faced making her film Water. Aside from being burned in effigy, accosted by angry mobs, and taking 5 years off to regroup, everything went fine.
In Water, Chuyia's (Sarala) husband has died, and religious doctrine dictates that she now retire to an ashram to atone for the sins that caused her husband's untimely death. As Chuyia bides her time among widows both young an old -- some accepting of their fate and some bitterly resentful -- the preadolescent widow's spirit remains unbroken and hopeful for a brighter future.
The director recently sat down with us to discuss making the film, writing screenplays and what she's working on next.
What made you want to tell this story?
Deepa Mehta: I think that it was even living in India, being Indian, or somebody who considers herself well read... I didn't know much about widows in India. When I was exposed to the history and the cultural background of why women whose husbands die, why they have to become ascetic or live a life that is completely deprived of emotional or social or cultural sustenance, I was really shocked. It was curiosity and a desire to know more that wanted me to tell the story.
Was it hard finding an 8 year old lead?
Deepa Mehta: Even though ashrams... probably still exist in India, you don't find a child widow anymore. That's one of the reasons that the film is set in late 1938, because then child marriages were prevalent. You would find young girls who would end up in ashrams. No, it wasn't that difficult because I looked at many young girls in India. It was difficult in India to find an eight year old who could play a widow. The reason for that is that most of the children in India are really exposed to Bollywood. It's commercial Indian cinema which is really over the top. To find an actor, or even a non-actor, who felt natural was difficult. It was easy in Sri Lanka to find a little girl to play a young widow.
When you wrote the screenplay for Water did you have any idea it was going to take seven years to get made?
Deepa Mehta: (Laughs) No, I wouldn't have written it otherwise. No, of course not. You write a screenplay... in India you can't make a film, you can't just say, "Okay, I'm going to make a film on such and such subject." You have to submit your script to the government. They go through the script with a very fine tooth comb, to ensure that there's nothing derogatory in the script. Or, anything in it that reflects badly on India or Indians. So we had to give the script to the government and they went through it... and gave us permission.
Once we got the permission you feel that you're going to be fine. So it was a bit of a shock when we started shooting, suddenly the cultural arm of the very government that had given us permission started saying that the script was anti-Hindu.
Could you talk about some of the problems the production faced?
Deepa Mehta: We had all the right permissions from the government. In fact, to ensure that you do shoot the script that you have submitted to the government, the government sends a liaison officer who's there every day with a shooting copy of the script to ensure that you actually shoot what you've submitted. He was there and we were in preproduction for six weeks in the town of Varanasi which is the holy city.
I think it was the first day of shooting, I believe there was a crowd of around 12,000 people who arrived on set. They threw our sets in the river, they burned my effigy, it was quite ugly. Basically, what they were saying was that the script was "anti-Hindu." I don't know what you know about mobs, but I've never seen or heard of a mob sitting down to read a film script. It was really horrific.
I had to go back to the government in New Delhi to get permission and I got, in fact, re-permission, and I met the people who were protesting against it. I said, "Why are you doing this?" They said, "We think that you are reflecting India in a bad light." So I said, "If you feel that way, don't give me permission to do it." They said, "No, no, no, now we feel it's alright. Go back and it will be be fine." And of course we went back and we're shooting for twenty minutes before another mob arrived. An Indian army arrived to protect us, somebody bombed the jeep and then the writing was on the wall. We couldn't do it.
So what I decided was that I would definitely want to do the film, because I loved the script. It's a subject that really moved me. I didn't want to do it, even though we were invited by different parts of India to come and do it there, I said I really didn't want to do it until I stopped being angry, because I was so upset and so disturbed by what had happened. It was something I promised myself. I would definitely do Water but I wasn't going to do it until I stopped being angry.
It took about 5 years for that anger to dissipate. Once it did, it didn't take very long to put the film together again. There was no way that we could shoot it in India because we couldn't get insurance. So we decided to shoot it in Sri Lanka. Once we started shooting it was fabulous. It was such a wonderful shoot. Getting there was something else.
Making a film even in good conditions is hard. It probably doesn't help with you trying to shoot a scene and you're being burned in effigy at the same time.
Deepa Mehta: No! I'm a filmmaker. I've never seen a gun in my life, let alone machine guns. I could not walk around without at least 7 bodyguards holding AK47s. Now, it's 5 years later but to this day it's very disturbing. I think it's when religion is misinterpreted for personal gain. That's very frightening.
How closely do you follow the screenplay for a film? Is it just a blueprint? Or, do you strictly follow it?
Deepa Mehta: My screenplays are very detailed. The reason they're detailed... you have to think on your feet. You have to be ready to change because there are no such things as ideal conditions. I write mostly as a director. That's why my screenplays are very detailed. So I get into the images I see. I like that.
What are you currently working on now?
Deepa Mehta: A couple of things. I'm going to start writing a screenplay for Focus Pictures. It's called The Julia Project, that's the working title right now. It's set in Manhattan. There's another one called Exclusion which I just finished writing. It's a period piece set in 1914. It's between India and Canada.
And you're directing both of those films?
Deepa Mehta: Yes, I am.
Water comes to DVD August 29 from Fox Home Entertainment.
Dont't forget to also check out: Water