When I talked with Deepa Mehta on March 20, 2006, it was the third time I’d had the chance to interview this remarkable filmmaker. A magnet and a catalyst for controversy, she makes films that challenge not just society in her native India, but also the ones elsewhere that tolerate intolerance in the name of tradition. WATER, the third and final film in her elements trilogy that also includes FIRE and EARTH, was no exception. The conversation included a brief cultural overview of the issues considered in the film, as well as the protests, including burning Mehta in effigy, that ensued during her first attempts to make the film. Effortlessly charming and with an easy laugh, she exuded an earth mother vibe and a passionate devotion to filmmaking and to social justice.
It is worth noting that during Deepa Mehta’s first attempt to produce WATER, the third in her elements trilogy, the sets were burned and she herself went up in flames. At least in effigy. What is it, one might rightly wonder, about a fictional story set in the 1930s concerning the cloistering of widows that, you will pardon the expression, inflames passions to such an extent. The people with the pitchforks and torches, metaphorical and not, hadn’t even seen the script, but the light it sheds on the condition of women in India, then and now, is enough to raise hackles, and a mighty amount of righteous indignation, among people who insist on seeing the female of the species as human beings, not as chattel.
The film begins with Chuyia (Sarala) taking a journey for reasons she doesn’t quite understand during which one of her parents asks her if she remembers being married. An odd question, except that Chuyia is eight years old, and the trip she is making is to the Ganges River where there will be a funeral pyre for her now-deceased adult husband. In her time and her place, child marriage is accepted, as is the practice of sending widows away to live in communal houses under conditions that no one likes to think about. As is made clear, the practice is as much an economic consideration as a religious one/ Widows, particularly those without children to support them, are a financial burden in this poor country. There is a Hindu proscription against re-marriage and in this “enlightened” age, widows are no longer burned on their husband’s funeral pyres, though what does become of them can be considered far worse than a swift if barbaric end to it all.
This is an unforgettable film of devastating beauty, but one that requires much from its characters and from its audience when judging the rightness of what transpires. That what occurs in the film is still happening today in India, and in uncountable variations around the world, is Mehta’s condemnation and her challenge to the viewer.