Q&A

THE DAMNING OF WATER

An Indo-Canadian director recalls how her film got quashed back home

DEEPA MEHTA October 28 2002
Q&A

THE DAMNING OF WATER

An Indo-Canadian director recalls how her film got quashed back home

DEEPA MEHTA October 28 2002

THE DAMNING OF WATER

Q&A

DEEPA MEHTA

An Indo-Canadian director recalls how her film got quashed back home

FILMMAKER DEEPA MEHTA divides her career between India, her birthplace, and Canada, where she’s lived since 1973. Her taboo-busting Indian trilogy, Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and the uncompleted Water, provoked violent controversy in her homeland. But her latest film, Bollywood/Hollywood, is a harmless confection—a romance about an affluent Indian in Toronto who hires an escort to pose as his fiancée for his sister’s wedding. It’s a musical that plays with the style of India’s Bollywood. Next month she starts shooting The Republic of Love, based on the Carol Shields novel. Brian D. Johnson spoke to Mehta, 52, at her Toronto home.

Where do you draw the line between Bollywood and Hollywood?

I don’t. In the film what I did was take the very schematic Hollywood plot and impose Bollywood on it. To me they’re very similar. Both have commercial plot lines. Boy meets girl, they get separated, they come back together. What Bollywood has, which is different, is that all the films are musicals.

How Canadian is Bollywood/Hollywood?

I don’t think it could have been made anywhere else. It’s a very Canadian film. Identities are blurred, and it reflects on my headspace, where you can choose what you want to be.

Tell me about your background.

I grew up in Delhi. My father was a film distributor, and I grew up with Bollywood movies. I just loved them. I loved the songs and the dances and the melodrama. I came here in 1973 after falling in love with a Canadian in Delhi. I’d done a few short documentaries for the government in India. I didn’t think I’d have anything to do with cinema until then. I’d had my fill of Bollywood. I’d done my master’s in philosophy, and it wasn’t very cool to like Bollywood if you were an intellectual.

Were you involved in politics?

On the periphery. I did my marches and my sit-ins. In the ’70s, for freedom of the press.

How controversial were Fire and Earth?

Fire was the most controversial, because everybody thought it was a lesbian film. But Earth was the one that politically really rocked people. Fire's about contemporary women and the freedom to make a choice. Earth is about the division of India and Pakistan after the Brits left in 1947, and the riots that happened. Water is set in the 1930s and is about the widows of India who are sent to the holy city of Varanasi to spend the rest of their lives in segregation.

What happened with Wafer?

Before you shoot a foreign production in India—and this was a Canadian film—you have to submit the script to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to get their OK. They don’t allow foreign films to be made if they reflect badly on Indian culture or heritage. I submitted the script of Water, and they said it was all right. They ensure that you stick to the script. So we did all that, and two days into the shoot [in February, 2000] we heard rumblings that the film was anti-Hindu. It made no sense, because if it was, why would the Indian government, which is a fundamentalist Hindu government, pass it? Before we knew it, it was like a brush fire. We were shut down.

How did that happen?

Mobs. Sets being thrown into the Ganges. Being surrounded by the army. A man threatening to commit suicide. I appealed to the Indian government and they said, “It’s got nothing to do with us. Go back and shoot and it will be OK.” We shot for half a day and were shut down again by mobs.

What were they protesting?

They objected to what they felt was an

anti-Hindu element, and what was circulating around Varanasi were copies of the script that had nothing to do with the script. They said it was about caste issues, and it had nothing to do with caste issues. I think I was a soft target. They said, “Here she is, she’s a woman, she did Fire and Earth," which were controversial. There’s a real resurgence of fundamentalism, and I was used.

Were you ever afraid for your life?

Once. We were in Varanasi, and effigies of me were being burned outside. I was supposed to leave, and we got a phone call that my plane had been delayed. Then my producer phoned the airport and found out it hadn’t been delayed, so he hustled me right out of the hotel. Five minutes after I left, cops came to arrest me. I managed to catch the flight.

Do you now feel persecuted in India?

Not persecuted but bitter. For a long time I never felt comfortable in Canada. But Water changed my whole perspective. I remember coming back to Toronto from Varanasi and just feeling so relieved. It was so great to do Bollywood/Hollywood here, to do any film here, because it had nothing to do with politics. I could direct. I didn’t have to go from one meeting to another explaining why I had to make the film.

How did your experience with Wafer change you?

I think I was foolhardy and naive in the beginning. We were shut down in February, 2001, and I was there till April trying to remount it. Everybody had left by then. That was the pivotal experience for me, when you’re trying to regain lost ground. With your perceived liberal friends who talk about freedom of speech until they’re faced with danger. That’s when I realized this wasn’t a film. This was reality.

Did the debacle over Water affect your reaction to the events of Sept. 11?

I’ve seen the ugly face of fundamentalism, so nothing surprises me any more. Also, it put into perspective why it happens, whether it’s because of the world economy or American imperialism. There’s a reason for the growth of any kind of fundamentalism. It’s inequality.

What about the American kind of fundamentalism?

It’s Bush imposing American values on

everyone else. Isn’t that what fundamentalism is all about—my values or none?

Are you still going to try to make Water?

I want to finish the trilogy. One of the fundamentalist leaders, who was quite easy to talk to, turned to me and said, “A good general always knows when to retreat and when to come back. You’ll know when the right time is.”

Bollywood/Hollywood is about a weddinglike Mira Nair’s hit, Monsoon Wedding. Is

that a hard act to follow?

No, because every Indian film is about a wedding! Its success can’t hurt. The success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding has really helped Bollywood/Hollywood.

How will it be received in India

Who knows how any film will be received? But it’s opening in 800 theatres in India, which is a huge release.

I assume it won’t be controversial.

If it is, I’ll shoot myself. ITil