Deepa Mehta is an Indian-born Canadian filmmaker of international renown, best known for her elements trilogy, “Fire,” “Earth” and the newly released “Water” which screened at the Whitney Humanities Center on Monday. The elements trilogy is an exploration of how politics affect women — the politics of sexuality (“Fire”), the politics of nationalism (“Earth”) and the politics of religion (“Water”).
“Water” is set in the 1930s during India’s struggle for independence and examines the plight of the impoverished and socially-exiled widow. The story is twofold: It is both about a spirited seven-year-old widow, Chuyia, condemned to spend the rest of her life in renunciation, and also a love story between a widow forced into prostitution and a young follower of Ghandi.
Bapsi Sidwa, whose “Cracking India” provided the story for Mehta’s “Earth,” is an award-winning author of Pakistani origin and Parsi Zoroastrian background. Her book “Water,” a novelization of Mehta’s film, was released alongside its celluloid counterpart.
Devyani Saltzman is Mehta’s Hindu-Jewish Indian-Canadian daughter. She works as a journalist in Canada and recently published her first book, “Shooting Water,” which documents her experience filming “Water” with her mother.
On Monday, scene sat down to have a conversation with these three women about their work.
scene: Novelizing a film, rather than translating a novel to the movie screen is an unusual order of events. What made you decide to novelize “Water”? And how is this reverse process different?
Bapsi: After seeing the film several times, I created a background for the child before the narrative of the film starts. Also, establishing the tone of voice of the novel was very important; I made the film mine in that way. It set the DNA of the novel. That was the way I sort of possessed it, and then that tone of voice could carry through to the rest of the novel and help me develop the other characters. When I was writing the other characters, this was a great help. Overall the book is very close to the film.
Devyani: And then there’s “Shooting Water on the non-fiction side. I went to work on the film, which was shot in secrecy in Sri Lanka after being shut down in India. “Shooting Water” is my first book. It’s important to say that the book stands alone, and yet the book and movie inform each other. My parents divorced when I was 11, and I chose to live with my father. So filming “Water” was a second chance for me to come together with my mother. It is my memoir about the process of making the film, and combines both the politics of the cinema and my personal story.
scene: Has your mixed Indian-Canadian background provided for any particular insights in your writing and filmmaking?
Bapsi: I am an Indian national of Pakistani origin, and now I’m American, but I’m deeply connected with all three countries. Borders don’t matter anymore.
Devyani: And I think that’s the future. My name is half-and-half, part Indian part Jewish. I went to university in England … we’re global souls, and I think it adds such a multidimensional character to our writing. I think a world unbound by nationality will be nice, or at least a world without blind nationalism and patriotism.
scene: Do you think film is a legitimate medium through which to make socio-political commentary? There are those who would argue cinema is only valuable as escapism.
Deepa: I don’t make my films or write them, or even when I asked Bapsi for permission to use “Cracking India” to make “Earth,” I didn’t do it because I wanted to send a message. I am a storyteller. The stories that I tell are on subjects that I’m intensely curious about, and they just happen to be [films with a social or political message]. Anybody can think whatever they want. I also like escapist cinema, but there’s room for other stuff as well. There was something written at the end of Bapsi’s book, that “all wars are fought on women’s bodies.” “Water” is about the widows of India, but it is about a broader theme I’m especially interested in right now: whether it’s Christianity, Hindu or Muslim, the fundamental misinterpretation of religion is leading to a lot of misery in this world.
Devyani: I think it’s really boring if art cannot comment on society. Of course it’s fun to go see “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle” or “Bambi,” but I like to be challenged.
scene: Can you tell me a little bit about the adverse reaction your films have received in India?
Deepa: They were so ugly. And what scared me was that they reflected what’s happening all over the world.
Devyani: But now it’s a different, secular government, and there’s a lot of interest in the film in India. People want to see it. And Penguin just published both “Water” and “Shooting Water” in India, so at least the story will be told in the country it represents.
scene: Why do you think “Water” in particular was met with such hostility?
Devyani: Pavan Kaivaram, a member of the Indian foreign service said that all nations indulge in a bit of myth making to bind their people together. And at the time that “Water” was being made in India it just became one of the casualties of maintaining the idea of the Indian nation without these widows. India at that time, under the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party, literally meaning Indian People’s Party] was pushing Hindu fundamentalism. I think a lot of the controversy surrounding “Water” happened off the back of what had happened with “Fire,” which was definitely controversial. But “Water,” in itself, is not a controversial story.
Deepa: “Fire” was playing in theaters all over India for four weeks before it came under attack. People said it was derogatory to women in India because there are no lesbians in India. It was then shut down in Bombay and New Delhi but still played at other theaters around the country. With “Earth,” it played without any problems and did really well — to this day it has been the highest grossing pirated DVD in India. It was also India’s entry into the Oscars. So by the time “Water” came along, the controversy surrounding “Fire” was something that we didn’t even think about.
Devyani: What happened with “Water” is that most of people protesting on street hadn’t even read the script, but this hostility started to galvanize a group of people fighting for the “Hindu Nation.”
Bapsi: Weren’t you scared?
Deepa: I think I was in a state where I just knew that I couldn’t indulge my own fear. These people actually operate on making you scared, so if I gave in that time …
Devyani: It was the first time I’d seen my mother’s effigy being burned, and her having to travel with armed guards.
Bapsi: They even put up a poster of a naked woman with Deepa’s face on it.
Deepa: No, that was during “Fire.
scene: Are there still widow houses in India today?
Devyani: The Ashram’s are still around today, the homes where women congregate because they often can’t go anywhere else. They wear white, which is symbolic of their mourning, and they shave their heads. They are atoning for the deaths of their husbands, because it is believed that in life they are half the value of their husbands, so in their deaths they are half dead.
Bapsi: Ashram’s are supposed to be religious retreats, but really they’re places where the widows are exploited and live under very horrible conditions. It is an example of the oppression of the women by the patriarchy.
Deepa: It’s a subject close to our hearts as women.