Interview With Writer/Director Deepa Mehta

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Credits include Water; Earth; Fire; and Midnight’s Children

Over the phone her voice came across as authoritative, warm and good-humoured during our interview earlier this month. It was not hard to imagine her holding together a difficult shoot, just like the experience she had during production of her latest film, Water, the last of her controversial trilogy.

Indian film director Deepa Mehta has built an international reputation for bold and beautiful filmmaking with her intimate stories about people in crisis at times of great social upheaval. She is renowned for the way she has brought particular attention to the plight of women in Indian society, and her latest film, now in release, is no exception.

It is set in a holy city in colonial India in 1938, just as Ghandi was rising to prominence, and tells the story of Chuyia, an eight-year-old widow forced to join an ashram or retreat for women who have lost their husbands. A pauper’s life is one of the three choices that widowed women were faced with at the time. It was either their husband’s funeral pyre, marriage to his younger brother or a life of penitence and renunciation.

I ask Deepa about widowhood, a subject on which there are a number of books in India. ‘Child marriage is not possible now and if it occurs it is against the law, but then it was possible for a female child to be married at 3 and kept in her family until puberty.’ The idea for Water came to her when she was in the holy city of Varanasi ten years ago and saw an elderly woman, a Hindu widow with shaven head, scrambling around on all fours looking for something, and hardly anybody paid any attention to her.

Each of Deepa Mehta’s trilogy of films – Fire, Earth, Water – look at the character of Indian society. Fire (1998) is about a lesbian relationship that develops between women in loveless arranged marriages within a family in modern India. It famously caused fundamentalist Hindu groups to riot when screened yet it reputedly enjoys high sales there as a pirated DVD. Earth (1996) is the story of a mixed-faith friendship group and the effect on their lives of the sectarian wars on the subcontinent during Partition. Deepa Mehta is no stranger to controversy.

I am intrigued by her casting choices for her new film. John Abraham has the part of the young Brahmin who falls in love with a beautiful young widow, Chuyia’s friend in the ashram. He is a handsome Bollywood star whom I last saw as the leader of a bikie gang in the movie Dhoom.

Another woman at the ashram is played by Seema Biswas, who had the role of the ‘bandit queen’, in Shekhar Kapur’s unforgettable 1994 movie about an Indian woman folk hero.

And then there’s editor Colin Monie (The Magdalene Sisters) who was chosen to edit because Deepa felt his work had the right balance of sensitivity and passion. ‘I didn’t’ want the woman to be seen as victims, and didn’t want the shots to be held too long’.

Water was filmed in Sri Lanka, after rioting Hindi fundamentalists made production impossible in India. In fact ‘it was wonderful filming in Sri Lanka. (There) they are just as enamoured with film as we Indians are, but they don’t hang around and make life miserable for anybody, especially when you strike to synch sound, it becomes slightly difficult in India. It’s the reason most Bollywood films are dubbed.’

It is sometimes said that Indian cinema can be divided between the arthouse stream and the Bollywood musical extravaganzas. Deepa, who directed Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), could perhaps be said to have a foot in both camps. What are her thoughts on Bollywood? ‘I definitely consider it good entertainment and there’s a place for that in our lives.’

Just bread and circuses for the masses? ‘No, it’s harmless. To be judgemental about entertainment is not to take it for what it is. But put it this way,’ she pauses ‘there’s so many you can see before you just say “Oh my God!”‘

Now Kapur’s serious and potent drama Bandit Queen was a film that ran into trouble with the censors in India, but your film Water didn’t, it just … Deepa finishes the sentence ‘ran into trouble before it got made’. A Canadian production, it received its approvals from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but when production began, more rioting Hindu fundamentalists trashed the sets.

Water is very beautifully shot and edited, what was the aesthetic you had in mind when you were making it? ‘I was wanting to capture the flow, the lyricism of water. That was what we were going for. I don’t feel nostalgic about India at all. You have to be away from it to feel nostalgic about it.’

Where is she based? Mehta lives between Canada and India, where she lives three to four months a year.
Fire was officially banned as a public safety risk, and Water couldn’t be made there, but Deepa Mehta will be working in India again. Sometime soon.

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