Interview: Filmmaker Deepa Mehta

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I grew up with films. My father was a film distributor in India. I had films coming out of my ears. I had a love affair with films at a very young age. By the time I went to the University I was oversaturated by them. I decided to pursue an academic career at New Delhi University, till I had an opportunity and some down town to work in a place called the cinema workshop which made documentary films in Delhi for the government in India. I learned sound, editing and even camera work and write my own documentaries on how to grow wheat.

After experiencing violent acts of protest during the original making of Water, which created news worldwide, filmmaker Deepa Mehta, famed for her previous works in the controversial “Fire and Earth,� shut down production in 1999. After sometime and forgiving those responsible for the torment Mehta returned with a new vision on “Water.� That renewed vision supported by writer, daughter Devyani Salzman, who joined her mother in the making of the film, caused a spark to reignite the lost relationship between mother and daughter & from story to film.

BSN: Back in 1999, you had cast a different woman for the role of Kalyani. How difficult was it to go with another actress (Lisa Ray)?
Deepa: It was an absolute joy. When I decided to Water again, five years later, I looked at it and it was like starting a new film. It had to be because five years had gone by. And the script hadn’t changed but I had changed. And the way I looked at my script was very different from the way I had looked at it five years previously, so I recast everybody and it was important to do that because as a director, how they are portrayed is extremely important. It all starts with the character. The way I looked at Kalyani was different. Five years ago, I looked at her as a very strong young woman. But five years later, I looked at my script and thought that Kalyani can’t be that strong it doesn’t make sense. She had to be very fragile and extremely vulnerable. The kind of woman that if you blew on her she’d just fly away, like Dandelion.

BSN: So, would you say the second take on Water was actually a blessing in disguise?
Deepa: Well, to think about it in retrospect, I don’t think it’s a blessing in disguise. I certainly think that I was more prepared as a film director the second time around. I think that I’ve done many more films that I would take chances on that I wouldn’t have five years ago. When we were shut down in the year 2000, what I promised myself was that I would definitely make Water one day but I would definitely do it when I stopped being angry about what happened.

BSN: What made you finally decide to shut it down?
Deepa: Before you make a film in India, you have to submit it to the Administration and they go through it with a very fine tooth comb in order to insure that there is nothing detrimental or derogatory in your script. And then only will they give you permission. And they went through the script with Water and it went through without one catch. They really liked it and they said fine, go ahead and make it. We were in preparation, in Varanasi, which is our holy city in India for 6 weeks.

Because the film is set in 1938, we had to do a lot of works on sets and stuff. And everything was fine, I met all the ministers, they knew about the script; including the chief minister of that province. And we had permission and total cooperation. So one day into the shoot, out first day of shoot; we were told that mobs were arriving onto the set. It was about 12.000. I don’t know.  We were really surprised because what they were chanting was the script was anti Hindu. And we found out that most of them hadn’t read the script. and we were incited by a Hindu fundamentalist party called the RSS.

Which is actually, ironically, the culturally arm of the very government that had gave us permission to shoot the film. We were surprised and they through our sets into the river. So I went back to New Dehl, which is our capital and spoke to the minister again. I met the head of the RSS again saying why are you doing this? And the head of the RSS said, I shouldn’t have made a film like fire. This was interesting because that had happened 8 years ago. I said, if you felt that way then why did you give me permission to make Water?

Then don’t give me permission. We’ve been there for 7 weeks. So go back and everything will be fine. We got permission from the RSS, went back to the set, started shooting and the Army, Indian Army came on to the set. They said they were there to protect us because huge mobs were coming again. One man had tried to commit suicide in protest against the film being made. And he was in intensive care. And after being horrified I shut down the film. And as soon as we walked out the set, the local journalists said that this man actual commits suicide for a living. You can hire him to either jump from a building as long as its 4 stories high.

Or he can set fire to himself. He does it with great regularity. It shocks people of course and it’s very effective. But the writing was on the wall. That we weren’t going to be allowed to make…cause they said that the army was going to be with us all the time. You can’t shoot a film with an army around. The local district said that it will all work out if we stay around for two or three weeks. You can’t keep a crew of 80 people around for 3 weeks. That is very obvious.

BSN: Why are you not angry anymore?
Deepa: I thought about what had happened and it became…it wasn’t about Water or me.  It was about the right of fundamentalism that resulted in people in wanting…using religion or misinterpreting it for personal benefit. The minute I could depersonalize what had happened and really understood the whole political context, I had gotten over it.

BSN: How did you get involved with making films?
Deepa: I grew up with films. My father was a film distributor in India. I had films coming out of my ears. I had a love affair with films at a very young age. By the time I went to the University I was oversaturated by them. I decided to pursue an academic career at New Dehl University, till I had an opportunity and some down town to work in a place called the cinema workshop which made documentary films in Dehl for the government in India. I learned sound, editing and even camera work and write my own documentaries on how to grow wheat. It was great fun.

BSN: How was it working with your daughter?
Deepa: It was lovely. The first time around she’d just finished University so she was quite young and she was working in the camera department as a trainee. It was pre-production of Water…it was very dynamic. We had a very dynamic crew and actors who were totally committed. When all hell broke loose, I was really worried for her. Because we really never got a chance to work together then. It was the second day of that we got two minutes of film before we shut down. I saw her grow up before my eyes. I saw her really worry for me and that worried me. I wanted to protect her. I think she ended up protecting me more.

BSN: How hard was it to make the romance work alongside the politics of the story?
Deepa: Not hard at all. Because for me all three women reflect a different time in a women’s life. I child, a young woman and oldest woman. Love is an intrinsic part of our life. As women, it is a very important part of our lives and it was very easy to weave it in. and I didn’t see any contradiction.

BSN: After watching the film, was there any scene that was your most favorite?
Deepa: I liked them all. For me personally, and its hard to put yourself out of it…Water moved me the most.

BSN: Was Sarala (Chuyia) the most remarkable discovery you’ve made since filming? Are you planning to mentor her?
Deepa: Absolutely not. I think it was very important for Sarala, her parents and myself, that when, especially her parents…they loved Earth. And that’s the reason they let her act in Water. But they’re very intent to let her do a lot of films until she finishes school at 18. and I really think that I respect that enormously because right now she could get into enormous roles and get ads…she’s an extremely talented young girl and that would just ruin it for her. And so, I’m glad they are really level headed about it.

BSN: Why was it so important for you to make this trilogy?
Deepa: Why was it important? Because these are three subjects that really interest me as a human being. Maybe it has something to do with what I feel passionately about as a person. Fire was about the politics of sexuality and the inability of making choices without dying of the consequences.

And Earth, which was based on Bapsi Sidhwa’ book, ‘Cracking India’ something which Bapsi drew on the back cover of the book, which really drew my attention to it, which said that: All wars are fought on women’ bodies�. Water for me is important because it’s about our conscious and our fate. Water is about the politics of religion and its affects on women.

Copyright 2006 Tonisha Johnson

Speaking Truth To Empower.� To contact The Black Star News write editor@blackstarnews.com or call (212) 481-7745. Subscribe to this newspaper and advertise to build power.

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