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Quiet flows in Water

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SAILING SAFE Deepa Mehta's
SAILING SAFE Deepa Mehta's "Water" finally sees the light of day.

RANA SIDDIQUI

Deepa Mehta's much awaited and much delayed film "Water" promises to be more than just a trickle of irony.

Not even for a single moment did I discard the idea of making this film.

Seven years ago, Deepa Mehta was shooting for her film Water on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi with Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Akshay Kumar, Manorama and a child actor. It was a dream project for her because 11 years earlier, she had gone there and spent a few days with the widows of Vrindavan and was moved by their plight. Denied access to a normal life and hygienic living conditions, these widows, almost reduced to beggars, are living on the mercy of those who visit them and grant some donation - in the form of saris, food and footwear. Their families have abandoned them, fearing that they may bring misfortune in their wake. Devyani, Mehta's daughter, who was the third assistant cameraperson for the film at the time, penned her harrowing experience in her book "Water" published last year. It gives graphic details of how vested interests repeatedly ransacked Mehta's sets, shot off death threats and shouted slogans against her for trying to "malign Indian culture and history" just to get attention in foreign countries.

The silent crusader

All that didn't wilt Mehta's spirit till the investors pulled back their financial support to the film because of the unrest. Four years later, Mehta, "without those residual memories", as she puts it, started re-shooting the film. This time, with a changed cast, location and most importantly, the set-up. In the new cast, Seema Biswas replaces Shabana Azmi, Lisa Ray replaces Nandita Das, John Abraham replaces Akshay Kumar while Manorama has been retained. The film is shot in Sri Lanka, while the widows are shown living in the imaginary town of Rawalpur that falls between Bihar and Bengal. The ethos however remains the same. It is made with the financial support of the Canadian film industry. And it is now Canada's official entry to the Oscar Awards. The film has already reached the top five in the category of Best Film in a Foreign Language. For Mehta, luck seems to be finally smiling as B.R. Films has agreed to distribute the film in India. Says a visibly satisfied Mehta, "It was no use crying over spilt milk. Not even for a single moment did I discard the idea of making this film. I prepared the set in Sri Lanka. We completed the shooting in 48 days. Sri Lanka proved to be a blessing in disguise because the people there are non-interfering. They are not so enamoured of movies. I didn't have to call the police to manage the crowd gathered to see the shooting. "

The cast change

Barring Seema Biswas, the audience may not be quite convinced about the changed cast. But Mehta had her reasons. "All the actors have grown older by seven years. It has affected the look that I required for the film." The child originally cast as the child widow is now 13, she points out, adding, "Akshay now is a big star. He, Shabana, Nandita had prior commitments and had no dates but they have been supporting my film through and through. I was amazed at the six year-old Sarla from Sri Lanka whom I signed to play the child widow. Communicating with her was a concern for me. She knew Sinhalese and no Hindi and I knew Hindi and no Sinhalese. So, she wrote the Hindi dialogues phonetically in Sinhalese and performed extremely well. You won't be able to make out she doesn't know Hindi. John is a highly under-exploited talent in Bollywood. He is a low-key Gandhian who wears a dhoti in my film. Lisa Ray reminds me of Rakhi in `Paro Ma', so I employed them," recalls Deepa. This film, which was made in 3.6 million Canadian dollars, has many first-time Canadian actors too. But, all said and done, the film is not what Deepa initially conceived it to be: the banks of the Ganga, Banaras of the 1930s and the affected widows.

No anger

Does it hurt? Is she angry? Deepa reacts after a pause, "Not really. I wasn't angry then either. I had a sense of bewilderment, pain, distress. I wondered if it wasn't because people over-reacted. It was a group of misdirected people having no sense of history. But as we started four years after those unfortunate incidents, I didn't carry with me any residue from the past. In Sri Lanka also, like India, I had to do a lot of running around to get a No Objection Certificate for the shooting. Bureaucracy is quite a strong factor there also."

On film censorship

She is bewildered at India's approach to film censorship. "I don't understand why there should be film censorship at all. Imposing censorship means you don't trust the public and treat the adults like kids! After 18, no one should be stopped from seeing what they want. There should be a mob censorship and not censorship on viewing," she asserts.While tentatively the film releases on March 9, two weeks ahead of the Oscar ceremony, Mehta has already competed the shooting of "Exclusion". It questions the Exclusion Laws in Canada and the U.S. that keep immigrants of Asian origin at bay. It recreates the infamous killing by Canadian forces of Indian passengers bound for Canada, in the hope of getting employment, in the Japanese steamer Kamagata Maru."I make films that move me. If it collapses in controversy it is not my fault," she says on the choice of subject.

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