Director waited for anger to subside to finish film
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She could have finished Water seven years ago, but director Deepa Mehta was in no mood to do so.
The film, which finally arrived in 2006, recounts the ugly treatment of widows in India in the 1930s. In early 2000, while shooting in the Indian city of Varanasi, the production was met by anger and violence from extremist Hindu nationalists. Sets were destroyed, mobs rioted and Mehta’s safety was threatened.
Still, she could have worked on. Officials in other parts of India offered their locations and promised protection. And she considered it, moving about the country — until one day she just stopped.
The Toronto-based director told producer David Hamilton they couldn’t continue. Not because of the anger directed at her from the hard-liners, but because of her anger at them.
“I was so upset by what had happened,” Mehta said. “I said if I impose it on the film, it’ll be really detrimental.”
So she waited. Then changed the cast and took the production to Sri Lanka. Mehta’s thinking clearly paid off. Water, the last of her elements series that includes Fire and Earth, will vie for an Oscar on Feb. 25 as Canada’s nominee for the best foreign-language film.
Mostly told in Hindi, the movie details how widows in India then were considered bad luck, ostracized and alienated. The group it focuses on struggles to decide whether to accept the widow’s plight or go against societal norms and try for a normal life when one of them falls in love. The film’s stars include the well-known Indian actors John Abraham, Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas.
When they protested in 2000, the Hindu nationalists blasted the movie, then starring Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, as being anti-Hindu. The level of vitriol stunned the Indian-born filmmaker.
“It was very ugly the way we were shut down, the death threats, the burning of effigies, the destruction of sets, the feeling of being betrayed which I felt,” Mehta said. “I’ve never seen anything so angry. I’d never seen guns, let alone machine guns.”
The movie has opened around the world, except for the country in which it is set. That is scheduled to change on March 9. The film’s distributors have said they don’t anticipate problems like those that shut down the production. It’s been cleared by the Indian censors, and Mehta is scheduled to do a press junket there, but, she added ruefully, “I would never second-guess the politics of India.”