An acclaimed auteur’s new film gets caught in the cultural crossfire.
In February this year I traveled to India to work as a camera assistant on the film Water, which was to be directed by Deepa Mehta (the third film of the trilogy after Fire and Earth). It was to be a period piece about the plight of widows in India to be made in the city of Varanasi. After many protests and threats of violence from various political/religious parties, the filming was stopped before it ever really had a chance to begin. Enclosed is an article I have written on the events and reasons as to why filming was halted.
I have worked as a camera assistant in the Australian film industry for five years. During this time, I have been involved with a number of good and bad Australian and American films. (Shine, Babe 2, Holy Smoke, Mission Impossible 2 – to list a few). I am a film technician, not a writer, but my recent experience in India made me realize that we are extremely lucky to have the freedom of expression that we do in this country and I would like to think that the story of Water would make people ponder this for a moment. That is why I wrote it.
In February of this year (2000), Deepa Mehta was to direct the film Water in India. It was the third of a trilogy of films for this Indian-born woman who now resides in Canada. The first was Fire, a story of two middle-class women drawn together in search of the warmth that their loveless marriages lacked. The onscreen lesbian relationship between the women angered many in India. Extreme protesters went as far as burning the cinema that first screened Fire to the ground, and Deepa Mehta was shunned by her country of birth for showing the world what was considered bad images of India. The second film, Earth, is a love story encompassing conflicting religions and politics between India and Pakistan. Finally, Water, is a film about Indian widows in the 1930s. In the past and present, many women whose husbands have died are forced to enter “widow houses.” Labeled as worthless without a husband to measure themselves by, they struggle to survive by begging and often turn to prostitution. It happened in the ‘30s and is still happening today. With this information in mind, I believed working as a clapper loader on a film to be directed by a woman of such courage would be an interesting experience.
The chosen location for Water was the holy city of Varanasi, a place where widow houses still exist. There is a building on the Ganges that was left in a will to shelter widows, but a disobedient landlord has converted the top two floors into a restaurant and guest house, while the lower floor, which is completely rundown, houses widows. Tourists sleep in their luxury surroundings ignorant of the fact that below them women are starving. Even the travelers’ bible, the Lonely Planet Guide to India, has remained oblivious to this and continues to promote “Ganapathi” guest house on Meer ghat.
The day before filming was due to begin, the crew was informed that there were a few complications with gaining location permits. The following day we were greeted with the news that 2,000 protesters had stormed the ghats, destroying the main film set, burning and throwing it into the holy river. Protesters burnt effigies of Deepa Mehta, and threats to her life began. There were three main political/religious parties leading the angry mob: the BJP ( Bharatiya Janata Party), the VHU (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), both well-established groups within the state of Uttar Pradesh; and the KSRSS (Kashi Sanskrit Raksha Sangharsh Samiti), a party formed overnight from the RSS (Raksha Sangharsh Samiti) specifically targeting Deepa Mehta. The KSRSS claimed their role was as the guardians of the culture of Varanasi and came forward with threats of violence against her. The head of the RSS approaching press with statements to support this:
“Breaking up the sets was far too mild an act, the people involved with the film should have been beaten black and blue. They come with foreign money to make a film which shows India in poor light because that is what sells in the west. The west refuses to acknowledge our achievements in any sphere, but is only interested in our snake charmers and child brides. And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them.” (The Week magazine, India, Feb 13th, 2000)
In order for a film to begin production in India, the contents must be cleared with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This had been done for Water, but the local government withdrew location permits citing that law and order could not be guaranteed. The crew assembled in the first of what would be many meetings to discuss what would happen to the production of the film. The budget was tight; financing had come mostly from one Canadian businessman. In addition, the director and her partner, the executive producer, had mortgaged their home in Canada to provide extra funding. Over the next few days, Deepa would fly to Delhi to meet with the Minister of Information and Broadcasting to clear the contents of the script again.
In an attempt to show sign of some kind of understanding of the situation, Deepa made changes to her script, but not without great reservations. The question was how far a director should compromise in order to tell a story. Is it more important to get a little of the idea out rather than none at all? When does the compromise reduce the impact of the original idea? The changes were not enough, and Deepa was harassed for making films that targeted aspects of the Hindu religion rather than looking into other religions such as Christianity or Islam. Why were her films saturated with this content? The answer is simple: she is Hindu; she is an Indian woman; these are the things she is familiar with. The RSS claimed that the world did not need to hear the problems of widows in India, arguing that Deepa Mehta had been poisoned by western influences and was simply looking for a story to sell to the world.
After three days of waiting, Deepa returned from Delhi with permission again granted to make her film. The local government was forced to allow filming. Day one, the crew was delayed in leaving for location by rumors of a 10,000-strong protest being held at the ghats. Six hours later, it was determined that the riots were a myth. The crew were escorted to location by anti-riot squads armed with water cannons, smoke bombs, tear gas, four battalions of the Rapid Action Force, and almost 200 police. Under the blanketed protection of the armed forces, filming commenced.
After two takes into the first shot of the movie, government authorities hustled their way onto the set. Law and order was at risk, they declared, and filming must stop immediately. We were forced to evacuate the location. One key protester had taken a boat out into the middle of the Ganges, consumed poison, tied a rock around his waist, and jumped into the water, yelling that Deepa Mehta and her film were his reason for attempting suicide. Days later the press revealed that the man, who was rushed to the hospital and survived, was a professional suicide attempter, employed by various political parties to attempt his own execution for various political reasons. This had been his sixth suicide attempt, and this was the reason given for closing the film down. Law and order was in jeopardy.
Despite the fact that filming had stopped, the protests continued. Eleven activists threatened to set themselves ablaze if filming resumed; effigies were burned; the secretary of the KSRSS was on a hunger strike; and there were death threats and bomb scares directed at the crew.
Deepa Mehta contacted authorities to begin the fight again, but the battle was lost. The local government stated they would not consider reissuing the permits for another three weeks, knowing that the finances of the film could not maintain an idle production for that long. The District Magistrate declared that he was prepared to arrest the crew if filming took place.
As a final statement to the Indian government, we assembled on the day the film was shut down to take part in a silent protest. The crew had traveled from all corners of the globe –Hungary, Germany, Canada, England, France, South Africa, and Australia – with the simple aim of working on a film. Instead we were drawn into something that would question our rights of expression and freedom of speech through threats of violence, powered by not entirely related political motivations. In silence, we sat on the steps of the District Magistrate building clutching copies of a letter addressed to the government expressing our disappointment with their lack of support. There I was in India, sitting on the steps of this government office, clutching my piece of paper, fighting for the first time for the right of freedom of expression. I waved a little paper flag with all my heart but wondered whether it was the business of a foreigner such as myself to enter a country like India, steeped in religious traditions and strong political codes, and try to challenge them. I was, after all, only going to put my flag down and head home. Perhaps it was not my fight to pursue.
The Indian government had in fact revealed itself to be inclined toward supporting the protesters. The RSS, a strong political party across the country, were attempting to show publicly the strength they had over the local government using Deepa Mehta as an example. Recent opinion polls had shown poor popularity for the BJP, who were also looking to regain strength and respect by overthrowing a project that they decided threatened the core of Hindu values.
There were never any arrests made over the vandalism that the film sets suffered when the protests began, yet Deepa Mehta was threatened with arrest for aiding an attempt at suicide and was forced to leave Varanasi. The crew were also advised by the government to leave the city immediately, as our safety could not be guaranteed.
In the weeks that followed, Deepa Mehta was invited to other states in India with offers of new locations for Water. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh had no qualms about doing this, admitting that his invitation was motivated less by an interest in filmmaking than by his desire to rebuff the RSS and BJP. Deepa and her producers are adamant the film will be completed despite losing 80 percent of the original budget. Deepa received many messages of support from around the globe, including a fax displaying a copy of a full-page advertisement that George Lucas had placed in Variety in March declaring his full support for Deepa and forfeiting any future work in India.
I flew back to Australia with the understanding that one of the greatest privileges we have in this country is the right to free expression. A country where directors and other creative artists are given the freedom to choose whether they want to make a political statement, rather than being forced to do so. As an Australian film technician, I have no creative input to the projects I work on, but I do have the freedom to work on any project I am offered regardless of its content. My experience in India made me realize this is a luxury. I traveled home remembering what Deepa had said on our solitary day of filming. After all her fighting, after she really began to believe the film was going to begin and end as she had hoped, she said: “I keep closing my eyes trying to imagine what I want the shot to look like and all I see is politicians faces.”
Water was eventually filmed in Sri Lanka and released to critical acclaim in 2005. Mehta’s persistence eventually paid off, but we feel the information in Yuen-Carrucan’s remains relevant and important as an eyewitness view of the kind of damage that blind religious orthodoxy can do to society and to art. For two excellent contemporary interviews with the director, go to the ever-useful World Socialist Web site, and here at rediff.com.