By Jeannette Catsoulis
In 2000, protesters successfully forced the abandonment of production on Deepa Mehta’s Water, the planned third part of her Elements trilogy (following Fire and Earth). To Western eyes, Mehta’s depiction of the forced ostracization of widows in 1930s India seems like a great lost human rights violation—a terrific, necessary story dying to be told. Of course, given that this situation still continues, to the eyes of her countrymen the situation looked vastly different. Five years later, the mild-mannered, deceptively slight Mehta returned to her script for Water, choosing to shoot in Sri Lanka instead…
Reverse Shot: The British are barely mentioned in the film. How do you see them in relation to the treatment of the widows? Were they aware? Did they care?
DM: They didn’t care because it didn’t affect them. Women in the society were so marginalized, and had so little power to affect British rule, they were paid no attention to. They were aware of the situation of course, and also used the widows for sex [At one point in the film, Narayan’s friend says “The gentry here have an unnatural concern for widows”]. But one of the rules they passed was to outlaw child marriage, and there was a lot of pressure on them to pass that law. But as the priest says in the film, “In India we tend to ignore laws that don’t benefit us.”
RS: How prevalent are ashrams today?
DM: They still exist, all over, but there’s now a lot of grassroots activism to give widows skills to make them economically independent and give them choices. However the practice is so deeply ingrained, and based on texts that have been so mixed up with the moral code of behavior, that to get rid of it—or even to question it —will take a long time.
Nowadays a lot of the younger widows do get remarried; but in certain classes of society it’s very difficult not to be ostracized, even if you live at home. Even outside the ashram, widows are still marginalized, because they’re considered inauspicious.
RS: Your film shows quite clearly how economic imperatives bleed into the interpretation of religious texts.
DM: A lot of it is about excluding widows from inheriting their husband’s money and land. With the widow in an ashram, the wealth stays with the husband’s family. So it’s more expedient to get rid of the widow, to tell her it’s her moral duty to live as an ascetic for the rest of her life.
RS: You have opportunities in the film to be more didactic—such as in the conversations between Narayan and his friend—but you soft-pedal the verbal politics and keep Gandhi in the background.
DM: That was a very conscious choice—I like pulling back! It’s about making people as real and as human as possible, whatever their politics; and if you want to make them real, they can’t be on platforms giving lectures. I didn’t want Narayan on a soapbox giving speeches. Also, everybody has their own take on Gandhi—some people love him, some are disgusted by him, and I wanted that balance.
Basically we tried to adopt a lyrical appraoch to upheaval; you can feel it, but you’re not overpowered by it.
RS: The character of Shakuntula moves gradually to the forefront until she becomes more important than the lovers. Was that your intention all along?
DM: Absolutely. I write as a director, in complete detail, we didn’t have the luxury of time for improvisation. For me, Shakuntula was always the backbone of the film, and it’s a question of how slowly you realize she has been all along. Her central conflict, between her conscience and her faith, is the nucleus of the film.
RS: After the fundamentalist violence, did you ever consider abandoning the project?
DM: Not even for a second. I just knew it had to happen at the right time, a time when I no longer had anger about what had happened, particularly with a story this fragile. My anger would have distorted the film and changed the story I wanted to tell.
RS: The cinematography is a perfect match for the story.
DM: Gilles is one of the rare cinematographers who actually understands the emotional center of a scene; it isn’t about his camera, it’s not about showcasing his work, it’s always about the characters. For him, there’s no camera movement unless the characters dictate it. We had no cranes, no huge tracking shots, or any of the handheld stuff that’s really popular right now. I wanted a stillness to the compositions and Gilles gave it to me. He only had 2 days to switch over from, I think, shooting Bee Season in DC; but he knew me and the script really well from 5 years ago. I have this great love affair with my British crew.
RS: You said at Toronto, after the screening of Water, “I feel I could retire.” Do you still feel that way?
DM: [laughs.] Well, I’ve changed my mind! I did feel that way, it had been such a long journey, and after the response at Toronto I thought, I can retire now. But I’ve just finished a script for a new film, called Exclusion. It’s based on a historical incident that happened between Canada and India in 1914. A group of Indian dissidents—375 men and 2 women—were being persecuted by the British, and they hired a cargo ship to seek refuge in Canada. They sailed from India to Hong Kong, then to Yokohama, then anchored in Vancouver harbor. The Canadian government wouldn’t let them in because they were scared of a brown invasion, so what ensued was a 2-month legal battle. The Indians—who were not even allowed onshore—pooled their resources and hired this brilliant British lawyer who will be played in the film by Terence Stamp. They lost the court battle, had to be sent back to India, and when they disembarked the British opened fire, killing about 90 and wounding 140. One man escaped and went back to Canada and assassinated the immigration lawyer who was primarily responsible for what happened.
WWI broke out, so it was one of those incidents that got lost in history; but for me it’s such an important exploration of the social economics that lead to racism. The whole story just fascinates me.