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Deepa Mehta—Water—03/20/06

Deepa Mehta's varied career includes two segments of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles at the behest of George Lucas, as well as the features Camilla (Jessica Tandy's final film), Bollywood/Hollywood, and The Republic of Love. Mehta completes her "Elemental Trilogy"—begun with Fire and Earth—with Water, a production that faced serious challenges. Hindu fundamentalists, in collusion with the Bharatiya Janatha Party and others, shut down Mehta's Indian shoot with protests, angry rioting, and terrorist threats. Four years later Mehta started again, this time in Sri Lanka, and completed the film. I spoke with Mehta on March 30, 2006, in the offices of Terry Hines & Associates in San Francisco.

Groucho: The films in your "Elemental Trilogy" are social histories, but they're also great personal stories. First of all, did the writing and preproduction of this film require much in the way of research? You seem very well-versed in this period.

Deepa Mehta: Yes. I did about four months of research—some in ashrams—a lot, for about two months in ashrams—and then a lot of required reading.

G: These films touch raw nerves, I think, in Indian culture and history. One gets the sense that maybe they're forbidden stories—ones that you're not supposed to be telling in your culture. Do you see them that way?

DM: No, I really don't. I think that—I don't think they're forbidden subjects—perhaps they're different. I think that maybe they're different in the context of what's being done and therefore, they stand out. But I certainly don't feel that they're forbidden.

G: This film, and also Fire before it, met with a lot of resistance, though, in your getting them told, yes?

DM: By a certain group of people—but not by India. I mean, I'd never say that India resisted the making of Water. I mean, it was an extremely fundamentalist Hindu group that did that, but that doesn't constitute India. I mean, there were just as many supporters of it.

G: Right, and the government was fully supportive of the film.

DM: Initially. But then, y'know, it was a cultural arm of the same government that stopped it.

G: Can you give us a sense of—would you describe it as a culture war that's going on there?

DM: I think it's a cultural war that's going on everywhere in the world. And India is one of the countries that it's being fought. I feel the cultural war in the United States.

G: Oh, absolutely.

DM: And I certainly feel it in England. And I certainly feel it in France. When you think about what's been happening there in the last couple of months. And it's started in Germany and Sweden and the Middle East—it's all over the world.

G: What do you see as the universal qualities in this story—taking it outside of just a historical perspective?

DM: You know, I think it was Buñuel who said that when something gets very particular, that's when it starts getting universal. And I think that because it's un—all the three films, in many ways—are unapologetically particular. They are—they touch a human, emotional chord. And that's what makes them universal because ultimately we are all human being and we either have known oppression or known indignity or known being bullied—whether as school kids or whether as grown adults. And that's something that we can all relate to. And certainly as human beings, we all—even however hopeless a situation is—we tend to be hopeful.

G: What aspects were you looking to portray through each of the three women in the film?

DM: I guess the flow of water, that it touches different parts and different phases of our lives—as a child, as a young woman, as a mature woman—and what ultimately happens with that flow.

G: You started the film at first in India. How much had you filmed in India?

DM: We'd been in pre-production for six weeks. And we'd filmed for two days. So I think about what we had in the cans is about three minutes of footage.

G: When you started the film again, after having been derailed, in Sri Lanka, did you feel a certain creative renewal? Or did you start from a place of exhaustion or feeling you had an uphill battle to go?

DM: Oh, neither (chuckles)—because when we were shot down, I said to myself that I would definitely make Water, but that I would make it when I stopped being angry. And that anger took about four years to dissipate. And one day it wasn't there, so I turned to my producer and said, "Okay, let's revisit it." I mean, I think he could have done it within those four years if he wanted to. But I just felt that to impose my own—the baggage of my own anger on a script that I think is essentially very fragile—deals with fragility on many levels—would be the wrong thing to do. So it was very important that I stop being angry. So once that anger had dissipated, to start again was—it wasn't even starting again. It was looking at the sur—there was no history. I'd come to peace with what had happened. And it was apart of history. It had nothing to do with the way I felt that particular day in the year 2000 when I picked up the script again after four years of not having seen it. And it was like "This is a film I want to do."

G: I know that Lisa Ray spent some time with widows in an ashram to research her role. Were you privy to what she was doing? Did you share any of that time with her?

DM: Yeah. I told her which ashrams that I wanted her to go to, because those are the one's that I'd based my research on. And there were particular ones that I felt she should expose herself to and, therefore, the character to. So she did a lot of homework going there and being there and of course I knew what was happening.

G: What are the differences between the ones depicted in the film, in 1938, and the ones that you looked at in your research?

DM: Now there aren't—you know, there are no young widows in any of the ashrams. So that's the first big change. And the other thing is that the younger women, the younger widows, don't shave off their hair. I haven't seen many of that. Some do. But I would say ninety-nine percent of them don't. And that's a huge difference. And the other thing is that now some of the widows who have younger children are allowed to bring the children to the ashrams. So that changes the sphere of the ashrams. Also, there's a bit more questioning going on, as more groundwork is being done with widows by activists and people who really care and even the government of India.

G: Were the widows there interested in the filmmaking process? Were they intrigued by the notion that, in a sense, their story might be told?

DM: Oh, when I was researching it, in the year 2000, before we started making the film, in Varanasi, yes they were. They were really intrigued, and they wanted to be—to play extras in the film. And they were—they shared a lot with me—what their days were like, how they spent their time, what their dreams were, what their aspirations were, if they had any, and they were really intrigued by it. And in Sri Lanka you don't have the same kind of thing with Hindu widows because Sri Lanka is mostly Buddhist, and especially around Colombo where we were filming—the concept of Hindu widows doesn't even arise.

G: Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of re-creating India in Sri Lanka?

DM: Well, you know, as far as the sort of tropical stuff that's in Sri Lanka, it's very similar to what's there in Bengal and Behar border. So I had no desire to recreate Varanasi because you need the budget of King Kong or something to do that (laughs) and I didn't even want to go there. So I sort of re-situated the film in a small town in the Bengal-Behar border called Ravapur, and so the scale was much smaller. But the production designer spent a lot of time in Varanasi and in—the other smaller holy towns where there are a lot of ashrams, looking at [them] and taking photographs and doing drawings and even to the extent about the exact measurement between each funeral pyre. And then to build the set was amazing—two people—in fact it was so authentic that we had tours from the local Sri Lankan hotel come with a boatload to see these old ruins. They didn't know it was a set.

G: And was that during filming?

DM: Yes—much to the dismay of the first assistant director.

(Both laugh.)

G: I wanted to ask about Sarala. She comes from Sri Lanka, right?

DM: Yes, she does.

G: How did you go about directing her? I know you had to rely on a translator and also even non-verbal communication, and that she was learning her lines phonetically. How does that affect the usual relationship you have between yourself and an actor?

DM: In a way it really worked for me and for Sarala because, you know, we had three weeks of rehearsals. So it's not just learning her lines phonetically because Chuyia really has the least number of lines in the whole film. But it was more explaining to her her reactions. So it was making her go through the script—if she's talking to Kalyani, this is what Kalyani's saying, and this is why you have to feel that way. Because we were limited, because of the language, or lack of language, it became about hand gestures and about a few key words that I used with her. And I love directing children, because they're really quite uncomplicated. They're much easier in many ways to direct than adults because they don't walk around saying, "What's my motivation?", you know. And all one—you aren't concerned about which school do they come from: are they from the method school or are they instinctive? They are what they are. And with kids, it's very important—children that a) they want to do it, because it's a lot of hard work, and b) that they really are right. Because that's the pre-requisite—the two pre-requisites—I think, when you direct a child.

G: And how did she respond to the content of the material—did she fully understand the human story there?

DM: I mean, how does an eight-year old understand the full implications of the story? I mean, I told the full story to her parents, obviously. And they knew what the content was, and we decided that there was absolutely no need to state—to tell Sarala what happened to Chuyia because a) Sarala would not understand it. But she would understand that somebody was very mean to her, and that's why she's sad. So it's been mean, sad, happy, missing home. I mean those are very—those are emotions a child will understand. Or you're getting impatient, or you love your dog, and you love this old woman, and you feel sorry for her because she hasn't eaten a sweet. Those are very simple directions. And so she did—I mean, she's very bright, so she did understand that she's a girl who's been left in a place that she doesn't want to be left in, and she misses her mother and her father and hr brother and her sister. But like all children, who are very resilient, she makes her own family in that alien space.

G: You mentioned the work of the production designer earlier. He said that it was sort of all in the script. I wonder are your scripts—how much is in the description there? Do you paint the picture in the screenplay?

DM: I guess I'm a director before I'm a screenplay writer. And so—and I'm very image oriented. So when I write my scripts, I—people—I mean the costume designer, the production designer and even the cinematographer just laugh. Because the details are—it's all about the details. How they're sitting, what they're wearing, or what the lighting is like. (Laughs.) So they're very descriptive. They're extremely descriptive.

G: And the production designer is your brother, yes?

DM: That's right, yes.

G: And you had, I know, earlier made a film about his work as a photographer.

DM: That's right, yeah.

G: And this is his first film as a production designer.

DM: That's true.

G: I wonder what your working relationship is like. Do you find it easy, or do you tussle a bit?

DM: Both. It is easy because I really trust his eye. He's got a great eye. And that's the reason I thought he could do it. And he knows lighting, and he knows the importance of the frame. And aesthetically I trust him implicitly. As a brother we argue quite a lot. But ultimately I did trust him.

G: I want to go back to the nature of the trilogy concept here. When did you first hit on this idea, and what ties the three films together for you?

DM: Fire is about the politics of sexuality. And Earth is about the politics of sectarian war. And, for me, Water is about the politics of religion. And I thought of—I didn't even know what the title of Fire was going to be. After halfway through writing the script, I realized that, yes, this is how it's going to end, so I'll call it Fire. And it was during the making of Fire that I started thinking of my next film which was going to be about the partition between India and Pakistan. And it seemed appropriate to call it Earth. And I'd already thought that I would make a film about the widows much before Fire and Earth, and that became Water. So it was during the making of Fire.

G: So, in a way, do you think, having made those first two films, before approaching this subject matter of widows, that sort of gave you an "in," in terms of imagery that you might not have otherwise have touched on more?

DM: No.

G: If this is about the politics of religion, I wanted you to address the comment that Narayana makes—"It's not about religion, it's just about money." What does that mean to you?

DM: Well, it's the situation of widows. It seems that all oppression in the world really—even when religion is used, it's used for personal power and personal benefit. And that's all got to do with power and money.

G: I know you've also said that Western filmmakers have romanticized Gandhi and his role. Is that right?

(Shakes head)

G: No, you never said that?

DM: No.

G: Oh, I thought I read that somewhere.

DM: No.

G: Well, maybe you could talk about how—even though his appearance in the film comes very late—how his character's impacting what's going on throughout the film.

DM: Well, everybody does talk about him in some form or the other. Whether it's Madhumati the eunuch, whether it's Narayan, whether it's his mother. Everybody has their take on what Gandhi means. Or Rabindra, Narayana's friend. So on a very sort of subliminal and a subtext level, you get the feeling that something is happening on a much larger scale, and beyond the confines of the ashram or the institution, which are happening in India. And that's exemplified by Narayan and his friends. Even the eunuch—what he has to say about Gandhi, which is always derogatory from his point of view, what Madhumati says about Gandhi. Or even when the priest—talks about Gandhi. So when he comes, he just doesn't come out of the blue. It's—Narayan hangs his picture on the wall. It was a time of great idealism and national fervor. And it wasn't even just getting rid of the British. It was also the whole sort of social fabric of India was changing. And Gandhi I think was instrumental in that, amongst many others.

G: Right. There is this—you mentioned before of the flow of water—there is this movement that the film is following, the river and the train. Do you see that movement as having reached it's destination, historically speaking?

DM: I think that—no, I haven't. But I certainly feel it's on its way. I mean everything takes time. It's on its way, for sure.

G: What is the next step here, do you think, in bridging this divide between the staunchly fundamentalist and the progressive—

DM: All over the world? (Laughs.) Because that's what's happening all over the world.

G: Right, right.

DM: You can't just talk about India.You just can't isolate it, because perhaps it's happening in India less than it's happening in many other places.

G: You think—is it just a matter of time, of generations turning over?

DM: I think so. But that doesn't mean I condone it, or I'm happy about it. It's scary in many ways because it seems so narrow, and it's oppressive and it's about might being right, and there's no room for dialogue. But people keep on trekking and doing their work. And as long as there is awareness that there is an alternative, and it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. And India did that. They voted the extremists out of power. And now we have the Congress government, and things have changed and are changing.

G: You spent the better part of a decade with this film, and you're still talking about it.

DM: But I didn't. To be honest, when the film was shut down, about two months after that till about—till a year ago, I didn't even touch the script. So I wasn't obsessing about it. I just knew when the right time came, I would make it. So I wasn't in any great, great pain or anything like that.

G: Right. I didn't mean to dramatize it.

DM: You can't resist, Peter! (Laughs.)

G: I was really just—I was hoping to get an idea of where you intend to go next.

DM: I'm writing my new script and sort of—it's nearly finished. We start, hopefully, shooting next year. That'll be fun.

G: Can you give a hint as to what it will be about?

DM: Yeah, absolutely. It's a film called Exclusion, and it's based on a historical incident that happened in 1914 when a boatload of Indian dissidents, from India, decided to rent a boat and to seek refuge in Canada. So they came via Yokohoma, across the Pacific, and anchored outside Vancouver. And the Canadian government at that time, which was again, a very conservative government, wouldn't let them in because they were scared of a brown invasion. And what ensued was pretty horrific because of huge legal battles and, for about two months, while the poor folks on the boat couldn't even get off the boat. But the legal battle was lost. And so the boat had to go back. And once it arrived on Indian shores, the British opened fire on the dissidents, killing a lot. So it's an exploration. I mean—I guess it's a big film in a sense. It's a historical epic. But it's about the human spirit. It's about people who see beyond the skin and people who are so insular and so insecure about keeping their own little land for themselves that they are actually oppressive. And it's the birth of racism as far as I'm concerned.

G: You live in Canada today?

DM: Off and on.

G: I understand that this film is doing very well in Canada.

DM: Yes, it's in its twenty-third week. (Laughs.) Which is amazing.

G: Is there any—do you have hope still that the film will get a release in India?

DM: The two distributors really want it. And I think the deal's being done. Hopefully it's going to be released in May—end of April or May.

G: Well, thank you very much.

DM: Thank you, Peter.

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