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Filmmaker back in her element

In `Water,' Deepa Mehta continues the examination of Indian society she began with `Fire' and `Earth.'

April 25, 2006|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

The movie sets were torched by Hindu extremists on the banks of India's Ganges River.

There were death threats -- so many that director Deepa Mehta was forced to hire bodyguards. Images of her were burned on the streets.

She had only six minutes of film completed on her movie, "Water," when the production was shut down in 2000 by the Indian government amid threats of more violence. Critics claimed that the story, which depicts dire conditions in a Hindu widows' ashram, was blasphemous.

Frustrated, Mehta returned home to Toronto, where she has lived since leaving India in 1973. She put the screenplay in a box and left it on a shelf until she was able to let go of her anger. It took her four years to resume the project.

"The film is so fragile, to impose my anger on it would have really distorted it," said Mehta, who ultimately made the movie in Sri Lanka in 2004 under a fake name, "Full Moon." "It's a story about hope, and that has to come through. Anger and hope just don't work together."

On Friday, the movie -- Mehta's fifth feature film -- opens in theaters in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. It's already opened in Canada, Australia and Spain, to much acclaim. And it screened last month at the Bombay Film Festival, where reaction was surprisingly positive, Mehta said.

The New Delhi-born Mehta is hopeful that "Water" will be shown throughout India later this year. Either way, she has secured her place as a voice of a new India. "Water" is the third installment in Mehta's elemental trilogy, which included "Fire" (1996) and "Earth" (1998) -- controversial films that also explore gender disparity and religious turmoil.

The movie is set in 1930s colonial India, when young girls were often married to older men to secure their family's financial existence. Eight-year-old Chuyia -- played by a young Sri Lankan actress, Sarala -- has little memory of her wedding when her family informs her that her husband has died. In accordance to Hindu laws, she is taken to a widows' ashram -- a dismal, gloomy place. Her head is shaved -- a sign that she is a widow who must spend the rest of her days suffering and grieving for a man she never knew.

Chuyia rebels. Her youthful determination has a strong effect on the other widows, especially the devout Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a woman forced into prostitution to support the ashram. Kalyani is pursued by a handsome village intellectual (Bollywood star John Abraham) who wants to free her.

Mehta said she came up with the idea for the movie 10 years ago, after she saw an old widow on the steps of the Ganges River. The woman was "bent like a shrimp, her body wizened with age, white hair shaved to her scalp, she scampered on all fours, and furiously looking for something she had lost." Passersby ignored the widow, even when she sat down to cry, as if talking to her would bring bad luck.

"I was curious about this," said Mehta in an interview recently outside a Brentwood coffee shop. "I wanted to know more."

She discovered that although some of the widows' homes had been shut down in India, there were many still in existence. And the conditions were shocking. "I ended up spending a lot of time in widows' houses," she said. "What was palpable was the despair. But it never ceased to surprise me, the ability of the women to survive."

She wrote the screenplay on her kitchen table in her small Victorian house in Toronto. She would get up early in the morning, make herself a cup of Earl Grey tea, light a Rothman cigarette, and write -- longhand -- in a spiral notebook.

Mehta's father owned a cinema in India when she was young, so pursuing a film career seemed very natural for her. (She remembers getting dressed up on Sundays to go watch the latest American movie, usually something starring Elvis Presley.)

She acted a little, and then after immigrating to Canada, she met and married Paul Saltzman, a Canadian film producer and director. They started a small company producing documentaries, television series and, eventually, feature films.

In 1992, Mehta caught the eye of George Lucas, who brought her in to work on "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles." After that, she found herself prominently on Hollywood's radar.

In "Water," Mehta said she wanted to show the sorrow of the widows, but also their spirit. Early reviews have credited cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, also a Lucas protege, with capturing the scene with a poetic lushness. Composer Mychael Danna (known for his recent work on "Capote" and the upcoming "Little Miss Sunshine") did the score, drawing on the themes of traditional Indian folk music.

The movie has received rave reviews worldwide. "Mehta herself has clearly progressed, honing her cinematic skills to the point where, here, she manages to do what her native country never has: Forge a cohesive unity, a colorful marriage of content to style," movie reviewer Rick Groen wrote in November in Canada's Globe and Mail.

Mehta said she has found the positive response "overwhelming." Her cast has found it heartening as well. Ray, one of the stars of the movie, said people asked her if she really wanted to get involved in making "Water," considering the controversy.

"I said, 'Bring it on.' This is even a more compelling reason to be involved with this. We need to support freedom of expression. I think this film is really a testament to that," she said. "It's a strange thing, filmmaking. It requires a sort of alchemy. It's hard to predict how a film will do, but on a gut level you know when something special is happening. That's how we felt about this."

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