Entry for July 08, 2006

The photo from Bright Lights film journal  shows a piece of the set burning at a protest, which  accompanies an account, “The Politics of Deepa Mehta’s Water.” by her camera assistant Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan

Barry and I are meeting at the Grandin Theatre this afternoon to see this 2005  film written and directed by the Toronto-based feminist Indian filmmaker.  This completes  Mehta’s  trilogy which includes the 1996  Fire, which involved two married women falling in love with each other, the 1998 Earth,  about the 1947 war between India and Pakistani. 

 Water, banned in India,  tells the story of a Chuyia, a seven-year old bride widowed on the day of her arranged wedding to a much older man and banished  to a life of begging and  prostitution in a “widow house” where 13 others are forced to reside to prevent their ‘bad karma’ from spreading and so their families will not suffer further financial setbacks.  Set in 1938 during the waning years of British occupation, the film deals with the duel oppression of women and of colonialism.  The film was shot in two versions–Hindi and English, but the Hindi version, with subtitles, which was released theatrically. 

Yuen-Currucan sets the background and depicts the storm set off by the filming.

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.

She  then goes on to quote the RSS press statement from the February 13, 2003 edition of India’s  The Week  magazine:

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.

According to my friend  Tilly Gokbudak review on the Grandin site, this   

is a startling, riveting film, which has lessons for Westerners of all political persuasions. There are some things in the old world which law books alone can not change, whether it be honor killings in the Middle East or female circumcisions in Africa, and the effects of those traditions can indeed oppress women socially and politically for generations. The film’s title “Water” is a highly symbolic one as water represents a journey to freedom… As is the case with many developing world filmmakers, including India’s most historically recognized filmmaker the late Satjayit Ray, part of the reason why their work is controversial at home is the concern that Western viewers will feel that their films are a documentary on life in their country and thus the filmmakers will in effect unintentionally advocate the justification of colonialist views….Her films are a stark contrast to the happy boy-meets-girl Bollywood musicals that India is most known for. ..Water is a film with many depressing scenes, but it has a surprising uplifting (albeit subtle) resolution which surprises the viewer. Mehta’s film is one that has to be seen on the big-screen because of the significance of the film’s landscape. 

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