In February 2000 Deepa Mehta had built her sets and begun filming on the ghats that run along the Ganges River in India’s holy city of Varanasi (Benares). The location was critical to her story of a widows’ ashram on the banks of the Ganges where 14 women live in penury and constant prayer, condemned by their husbands’ deaths and shunned by ordinary people as omens of bad luck. With white saris and shaved heads, sick and elderly widows traditionally come from all across India to Varanasi in the belief that if they die in the holy city and their ashes are spread on the sacred waters of the river they will find salvation. A decade earlier Mehta had seen such a widow: a skeleton-thin old lady on her hands and knees, blindly searching for her lost spectacles while the passing pilgrims avoided her. Mehta’s unshakable memory of that widow, “bent over like a shrimp,” would eventually inspire the screenplay for Water. Following her films Fire in 1996 and Earth in 1998, it was to complete what she called her Elemental Trilogy.
Mehta set the film in 1938 during the rise of Gandhi. Although by then the infamous tradition of suttee—the burning of women on their husbands’ funeral pyres—had long since been abandoned, widows were still required under Hindu law to retreat from the world and live a life of mourning and penitence. According to Hindu belief, the sins of women in their past lives had caused the deaths of their husbands. The harsh consequences of these beliefs were compounded by the practice of arranged marriages, in which young girls could be given as brides to old and even dying husbands. Mehta’s ashram on the Ganges includes an eight-year-old widow, destined to live her entire life in severe discipline—while the obese old matriarch who rules the ashram supports her appetite for forbidden sweets and Banja by selling the services of a beautiful widow to rich Brahmin men on the other side of the river.
Mehta has said that the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting—which censors and approves screenplays before they can be shot—granted her all the necessary permits. But Hindu fundamentalists, who had been fulminating about Mehta’s sacrilegious treatment of holy scriptures ever since Fire, torched the sets, threw them into the Ganges, and burned Mehta in effigy. When Fire was released in India, they had thrown Molotov cocktails at the screen and closed down theaters. This time they preemptively threatened to riot if Mehta began filming. The local authorities of Uttar Pradesh were unable to guarantee adequate protection, and Mehta had to look for alternative sites. It took her four years to find a substitute for Varanasi, but beside the still waters of Bolgoda Lake in Sri Lanka, Mehta created a timeless Varanasi of the imagination.
The set design is one of the many stunning accomplishments of the film; every shot of Giles Nuttgen’s cinematography is a work of art, and there are moments of serene beauty. Indeed, Water, which was finally completed in 2005 and released in the United States this year, is far and away Mehta’s greatest achievement and deserves comparison with the masterwork of Indian cinema, the Apu trilogy of Satyajit Ray.
Mehta’s earlier films, and particularly those in the Elemental Trilogy, would not have led one to expect the deep humanism, epic power, technical mastery, and sheer beauty of Water. With this film Mehta has turned all her weaknesses into strengths. The psychological themes she has worked and reworked—as though she were settling a personal score—become here an expansive portrayal of the human condition. Her stock storytelling device—in which everything is seen through the eyes of an innocent—takes on narrative force through the rebellious eight-year-old child who refuses to accept her fate. Mehta’s earlier attempts to create epic scenes lacked verisimilitude; in Water the reenactment of Gandhi’s visit to a thronged train station is totally convincing. And Mehta’s own ironic and condescending attitudes toward Hindu traditions are here mediated by characters struggling with their faith.
Mehta was born into a well-to-do Hindu family in India. Her own widowed grandmother, she says, far from being an outcast, was a tyrannical matriarch. Mehta’s father was a film distributor and theater owner, and Mehta spent many afternoons with her friends watching films. The family was ambitious: her older brother Dilip was an internationally renowned still photographer by the time he was 24, and Mehta set her own sights on becoming a philosopher—a more common route to filmmaking these days than one might suppose. Like many graduate students, Mehta could not settle on a Ph.D. thesis topic, and when someone at a dinner party offered her a job as a gofer in a documentary-film studio she jumped at the opportunity. She started honing her filmmaking skills and made her first documentary about the arranged marriage of a 15-year-old girl, an untouchable, who cleaned the floors in the Mehtas’ own home.
She married the Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman and immigrated to Toronto. The couple started making documentaries together, one about her brother, Dilip Mehta, who often worked with them. In her first feature film, released in 1991, she acknowledges exploring psychological and cultural issues that were important in her life. The film, Sam and Me, was about a young Muslim Indian who has immigrated to Toronto and gets a job taking care of an old Jew, Sam Cohen. Sam is no longer interested in life and wants only to be buried in Israel. His family does not really want to bother with him. But something unexpected happens: the young Muslim and the old Jew discover that they enjoy each other’s company. Their friendship upsets both families, who interfere with unhappy consequences.
The success of Sam and Me brought Mehta to the attention of George Lucas, who hired her to make two episodes of the television series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, one of them set in Varanasi, circa 1910. It was during the filming of that episode that she saw the unforgettable image of the old widow. And it was during that production that she worked for the first time with Giles Nuttgens, the talented cinematographer who would film the entire Elemental Trilogy.
Mehta’s career was launched, but her marriage disintegrated. During the months leading up to her divorce she threw herself into writing Fire, set in modern-day India. Returning to India to film, she was not the prodigal child asking forgiveness and embracing the traditions that still require women’s subservience. Her Elemental Trilogy was to be a challenge to the chauvinism of Hindu orthodoxy.
Fire is a story of sexual hypocrisy in a lower-middle-class Hindu family in Delhi. The family—an elderly mother disabled by a stroke, her two sons, their wives, and a male servant—live together above their takeout restaurant and video store. The wives are unloved and sexually rejected by their husbands; the male servant is repulsive in his own way. The older brother prides himself on living a life of pious sexual abstinence, brahmacharin, based on the Hindu belief that desire is the root cause of rebirth into the cycle of suffering. In reality he is punishing his wife, whom he blames because they have been unable to have children. She accepts the blame and works hard to take care of the family and the restaurant. Having established the sordid nature of the men in the family, Mehta draws the victimized wives into a lesbian love affair. Mehta affirms this sexual relationship. Rebelling against her servitude, the elder of the two wives tells her pious husband that she has chosen to live a life instead of penitently waiting for death.
What had fundamentalists firebombing movie screens was that in addition to mocking religious asceticism and affirming lesbianism, Mehta’s screenplay parodied a famous Rama and Sita story in Hindu scripture. Sita, the goddess, proves that she has been sexually faithful to her husband, the god Rama, by going through a trial by fire. Mehta’s heroine, the older sister-in-law, is subjected to an enactment of the trial by fire when her husband discovers her lesbian affair. She survives the fire but abandons her husband and goes home to rendezvous with her lover. The controversy surrounding Fire had a longer life than the film itself and made Mehta’s reputation.
Earth, the next film in the trilogy, was based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s best-selling novel Cracking India. It described, from a child’s point of view, the tumultuous year of 1947, when India was partitioned and millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs were turned out of their homes and slaughtered by their neighbors. Unfortunately, neither the acting nor the epic scenes were compelling enough to make the novel come to life on the screen.
Water could have easily been much like Earth had Mehta not been stopped by the violence in Varanasi. She was preparing to use many of the same actors and many of the same themes. But when the fundamentalists forced her to temporarily abandon Water, she turned her attention to a lighter film that may in the end have brought new life to the trilogy.
That film was Bollywood/Hollywood, a thoroughly entertaining musical comedy that became a huge commercial success in Canada and elsewhere in the Indian diaspora. It playfully engages the conflicts of Indian identity and assimilation, conflicts that Mehta still struggles with herself, and this time gives them a comic resolution in which love conquers all.
For Bollywood/Hollywood she needed a glamorous leading actress, and she cast Lisa Ray, a woman of Indian and Polish descent who has become India’s foremost fashion model. When Mehta returned to Water she brought Ray with her to play the beautiful widow who is sold into prostitution. There is a love story in Water; a young lawyer from a wealthy Brahmin family sees the beautiful widow in the street. It is love at first sight, a relationship that transgresses the taboo against widows and the caste system. Mehta gave the part of the lawyer to a Bollywood star and India’s most celebrated male model, John Abraham, a man who had appeared on the cover of as many magazines as Lisa Ray. Although he plays the role of a recent law-school graduate circa 1938, he appears in the film sporting the kind of three-day beard that currently seems required of young male actors. That said, Ray and Abraham give winning performances that do credit to Mehta. Lisa Ray’s character, Kalyani, is a simple, uneducated woman, the lotus that preserves its innocence even as it floats in corruption. Within those parameters Ray is superb. Abraham’s character is a Gandhian idealist who has to convince us that he truly feels love and is not just a fool—and he succeeds.
More daring was Mehta’s selection of the eight-year-old widow, Chuyia, the feisty girl who will challenge the traditions of the ashram. When the film begins we see the child sucking on a stalk of sugar cane and riding on the back of a wagon through the countryside. A man is stretched out on the wagon bed, and she cheekily pokes his feet; only later will we realize that he is the child’s dying husband. The marriage seems never to have been consummated, and there has been no wedding, but this little girl is about to become a widow. Her parents piously abandon her in the ashram, and her head is shaved in a ritual of degradation. Since Mehta would be filming in Sri Lanka, she began searching there for a child to play Chuyia. The girl she discovered, Sarala, did not speak Hindi and had to learn all her lines by rote. But she is a spirited presence who speaks the lines that one imagines are closest to Mehta’s heart: “Where are all the male widows?” she asks.
Mehta’s ashram is peopled with crones out of Fellini’s movies, and their ensemble acting is superb. Madhumati, the matriarch of the ashram who ruthlessly exploits Kalyani to satisfy her appetites, is still shown to us in all her humanity—a tribute to Mehta’s and the actress’s talent. But it is the widow Shakuntala, played by the great Indian actress Seema Biswas—known to Western audiences for her role as Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapoor’s Bandit Queen—whose performance holds the film together. Shakuntala is the conscience and quiet strength of the ashram. She is the character who mediates the struggle between deep religious faith and the truth as she sees and understands it. And she struggles to resolve this not out of self-interest—she accepts her own fate as a widow—but out of her concern for Chuyia and Kalyani.
When, despite the religious taboos and his parents’ high social position, the lawyer resolves to marry the beautiful illiterate widow, tragedy ensues. He is escorting her to his home across the river when she recognizes the way: she has been his father’s prostitute. She insists on turning back and later drowns herself in the river where she has so often cleansed her body and her soul. And this is not the worst that can happen in Mehta’s tragic imagination. The obese crone, not to be denied her luxuries, sends the innocent Chuyia across the river to the rich Brahmins. The horrified Shakuntala is waiting at the dock when the feisty child, now devastated, is returned the next morning. She takes the child in her arms to the railroad station where Gandhi is making a brief stop. If there is hope in this corrupted world, she finds it in Gandhi, not the religious tradition she has followed. With Chuyia in her arms she listens with the throngs of people to Gandhi’s message. He reenters the train, and it slowly begins to leave the station. Shakuntala now knows what to do: chasing the train with the child in her arms, she spots the lawyer who is leaving with Gandhi. Desperately she hands the ruined child over to his care.
Preposterous, yes! Melodramatic, yes! But in this it is like many great movies. There was not a dry eye in the audience as that train moved into the distance. Mehta has proved in Water that she is more than an angry iconoclast. A gifted filmmaker, she has given desperation a human face. <
Alan A. Stone is the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School.