It's six years now since Deepa Mehta first started production on her film Water in the holy city of Benares on the river Ganges. Set in 1938, this was intended as the third part in Mehta's trilogy that had begun with Fire (1996), notorious as one of the first Indian-set films to depict lesbianism, and continued with Earth (1998), which looked at the events leading up to the partition of India in 1947.
Mehta and her crew were well aware of how much controversy Fire provoked. To some, the very idea that lesbianism existed in Indian culture was anathema. Right-wing Hindu fundamentalist leader Bal Thackeray, leader of the Shiv Sena political party, had done his best to prevent Fire from being shown anywhere. Cinemas in Bombay and Delhi were fire-bombed by his supporters, a cinema manager was beaten up and there was widespread vandalism.
"The film had been playing for about four weeks in India before somebody woke up and said this was anti-Hindu because no lesbians exist in India," says Mehta. "For me, it was terrible - a film that had gone through the Indian censors without one cut and which had played successfully all over the world got shut down in my own country. It was heartbreaking."
Fire was again cleared by the Indian censorship board and subsequently shown in cinemas under police protection. Even then, the protests continued. Extremists would buy tickets, pose as normal cinemagoers and then command spectators to leave the theatre.
The irony was that the film-makers had no difficulties making Fire or Earth on location in India. "We had never had any problems with the Indian government authorities. We've always got approval for any films we've done almost immediately and without any changes," producer David Hamilton recalls.
With Water, matters were very different. Hamilton tells a chilling story about a day early on during production. He and Mehta were on location when reports filtered through that 2,000 right-wing extremists had rampaged through the main production base, setting fire to the sets and throwing them into the river. It was sheer chance that Mehta and Hamilton hadn't come face to face with the rioters themselves. Mehta's effigy was burned and she was accused of being anti-Hindu.
"I think their intention was to cause as much media attention as they could get," says Hamilton. "They wanted to make it visually strong. That's why they burned the set. So they wanted to create a fire and have big crowds. These people are very well organised and they're also dangerous. Even though I don't think that there was an intent to cause us any bodily harm, we were under death threat."
For a fortnight or so, the film-makers held their ground. Their insurers didn't cover insurrection and so the crew had agreed to work for nothing. At first, Hamilton took the protesters' charges seriously and tried to address them. "We thought that if they actually were offended some way or another by the script, maybe we could clarify it for them," he says. Pretty soon, it became apparent that the ostensible grievances over Mehta's story were an irrelevance. The protesters were simply using Water to win media attention.
Mehta and Hamilton briefly tried to revive the project at other, safer locations in India. Hollywood heavyweights pitched in to support them. George Lucas (for whom Mehta had directed an episode of The Young Indiana Jones) spoke out on her behalf, taking out a full-page ad in a trade paper to decry the fundamentalists' actions. Even so, it rapidly became apparent that the film would cause trouble wherever it was shot. Eventually, Mehta and Hamilton realised their position was untenable and closed down production.
At first, Mehta was so furious about what had happened that she couldn't even think about taking a second stab at Water. "Until that anger dissipated, I didn't try to do the film." Five years on, she finally completed the movie she started in 2000, albeit with an entirely different cast. Mehta decamped to Sri Lanka, but even then, she shot the movie under a different title, Full Moon, and kept a closed set. The script was exactly the same, but time had passed. The Toronto-based Mehta has made two other features in the intervening years. She admits she has changed as a personality. Moreover, there is no concealing the fact that she has had to shoot a quintessentially Indian story in a foreign country.
"We filmed under cloak of secrecy," says Hamilton. "There was very little interaction with Sri Lankans, whereas whenever we shoot in India, it's very hard to avoid having interaction with the press, the media and the people."
"Now that the film is complete, I can look back on the journey it has taken to make it," says Mehta."The anguish, the death threats, the politics, the ugly face of religious fundamentalism - we experienced them all. Has it been worth it? I often wonder."
The question is clearly rhetorical. Mehta believes that Water is a far stronger film than she would have been able to make in 2000. Being in Sri Lanka meant that she could work unhindered. "I could [make the film] without meeting politicians every evening and having endless cups of tea with them."
Moreover, as the writer-director points out, the controversy surrounding Water is entirely in keeping with the film's subject matter. "The way religion was unleashed on us, using religion to shut us down was exactly the core of the script for me. It was [about] to what extent we manipulate religion to serve our personal benefit."
This is a drama about the repression and subjection of women. Its focus is the plight of widows. The story begins in heart-rending fashion with a pretty, long-haired, young girl learning that her sickly husband (whom she barely realises she has married) is dead and that she is now a widow. Her choices are stark. Sacred Hindu texts proclaim that a woman who is unfaithful to her husband "is reborn in the womb of a jackal". Chuyia can either marry her husband's brother, die on her husband's funeral pyre, or live away from the world. Her father deposits her in an ashram whose other inhabitants are all also widows. Some are children like her. Some are very elderly women. They all have their hair shaven and are obliged to beg. Only one woman is allowed to keep her hair, the beautiful Kalyani, but this is only because she is being forced to prostitute herself to make extra money for the ashram.
"They shouldn't be marginalised because of something they had no part in - which is the death of their husbands," says Mehta, pointing out the central injustice at the heart of the story. As the film makes clear, religion is used to justify the terrible treatment of widows, but economics really lie behind the decision to expel them from their families. "Disguised as religion, it's just about money," Narayan, the young lawyer and follower of Gandhi, tells one woman. "One less mouth to feed. Four saris saved, one bed, and a corner is saved in the family home. There is no other reason why you are here."
The subject matter may be grim but Water is an exquisite piece of film-making, beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens (best known for his work on Star Wars) and with haunting music from Bollywood legend AR Rahman. "Learn to live like a lotus untouched by the filthy water it grows in," one of the widows is told in the film. It's a motto that Mehta herself seems to have taken to heart. She is hugely frustrated that she is regarded in certain quarters as a polemicist rather than an artist. Her films may deal head-on with social issues, notably the exploitation of women in a patriarchal society, but, she insists, "I don't feel like a heroine for provoking anything. I am a film-maker."
To her relief, Water has finally been accepted on its own terms. Shortly before its premiere as the opening film at the Toronto Festival, Hamilton organised a special screening in New York. Among the guests was Salman Rushdie. He was enraptured by the movie. "The film has serious, challenging things to say about the crushing of women by atrophied religious and social dogmas, but, to its great credit, it tells its story from inside its characters, rounding out the human drama of their lives, and unforgettably touching the heart," Rushdie wrote.
No, Mehta insists, this wasn't a case of an old friend with his own experience of religious persecution rallying to her support. She had never met Rushdie before and was delighted that he responded to the film as a piece of storytelling, not as a cause. "I've come to terms with what has happened and I have left it behind me. For most people who don't know what happened [in 2000], they respond to the film and that's what makes me feel good. To be called controversial is something I find appalling."
Water has broken box-office records in Australia and has also done well in the US. The film is yet to screen in India but Mehta is confident that it will be seen there - and that this time the fundamentalists won't be able to derail the release.
What now for Mehta? As if for light relief, she is currently helping her brother Dilip (a production designer on her films) make a comedy. However, her battles with Fire and Water don't seem to have dampened her enthusiasm for making big-budget, crusading social dramas. She is now planning an even more ambitious film called Exclusion. Set in 1914, this will tell the true story of how 375 Indians commandeered a cargo ship in order to travel to Canada to escape persecution from the British.
"Once [the Indians] got there, the Canadian Government wouldn't let them in because they were scared of the 'brown invasion'," says Mehta. "They were sent back to India. Once they arrived back and disembarked, the British soldiers opened fire on them, killed quite a number of them and wounded the rest. For me, it's a story about the socio-economic reasons that lead to racism."
The project is still at an early stage. Nonetheless, a pair of predictions can be made: Exclusion is bound to be a battle to make and it will provoke controversy. It wouldn't be a Deepa Mehta film otherwise.