elements of enlightenment

filmmaker Deepa Mehta & daughter Devyani Saltzman on their quest for truth, each other & moksha

photo by devyani saltzman, www.devyanisaltzman.com
once burned…

I remember the first time I heard Deepa Mehta’s name. I was seventeen years old and I was sitting around with a bunch of other students in our college cafeteria, drinking chai and chatting when suddenly our friend Karl came running up, flushed and out of breath. “There’s a film about lesbians playing at the New Empire! Shabana Azmi is in it and it’s by some woman called Deepa Mehta.”

The only other time there was a mass exodus from the cafeteria like that was when there was an explosion in the chemistry lab and the building had to be evacuated.

The next two hours were a revelation. First of all, none of my friends nor I could believe that the Indian Censor Board had passed a film with lip-to-lip kissing and mild (and tasteful) nudity. This was unheard of in a country where all on-screen sex was symbolically implied – either as consensual sex with song and dance, or rape by flashing lights, screaming and sari-ripping. Were we finally growing up?

And then there was the plot. Fire, the first film of the Elements trilogy, tells the story of two women married to a pair of brothers and the choices that emerge from their lack of freedom. Through the film and its various references to Indian scripture and myth, writer/director Mehta made several previously unheard-of declarations: women have needs too, and those needs can, in some cases, be fulfilled by other women. And “choice” needn’t only be a man’s word.

“My mother’s arranged marriage and her feelings of isolation moved me deeply,” says Mehta of Fire. “Most of my formative years were spent in New Delhi, surrounded by numerous aunts. We women, especially Indian women, constantly have to go through a metaphorical test of purity in order to be validated as human beings – not unlike (goddess) Sita’s trial by fire. I’ve seen most of the women in my family go through this.

“Do we, as women, have choices? And if we make choices, what is the price we pay for them?”

The price Mehta paid for her forthrightness is that two weeks after we watched Fire at the New Empire Cinema in Mumbai, a mob of about 200 people broke into the theatre, ripped posters, trashed the lobby and threatened to burn down the theatre if the movie was shown again. Mehta could not leave her home in India without an armed escort, and Shabana Azmi, the lead actress in the film, was threatened with expulsion from the Rajya Sabha, the Parliamentary House of Lords.

Suddenly, I woke up.

I realized that my beloved city, where I had been raised as a thinking, educated female, had an ugly side – one that terrified me with its ferocity, illogic and hostility to the idea that a woman could choose her own destiny. “Un-Indian! Un-Hindu!” yelled the fundamentalists – women among them.

College students like me took to the streets to march in protest of the banning of Fire. Many formerly closeted gays and lesbians came out in New Delhi, and gay activists country-wide stood up to point out that the fact that the national language, Hindi, has no word for “lesbian” meant not that the concept is unspeakable, but that it used to be so acceptable that there was no need to give it a special name.

Deepa Mehta had sparked a revolution with 108 minutes of celluloid; a revolution that changed my life forever. I understood the raw power of a story – to frighten, to threaten and to inspire. The pen is mightier than the sword, and in many ways, a story can work the same way as a nuclear bomb – its life-altering effects being passed down through generations, strengthening instead of destroying.

What an empowering thought for a budding writer!

reflections on water
So you can imagine my glee when, a few months ago, as a result of celestial machinations far beyond my comprehension, I got a chance to meet one of my childhood heroes.

Mehta is a surprisingly small woman – a study in contradictions; her classically Indian face with its dramatic dark hair and serene, bodhisattva eyes at odds with her brisk movements and mannish sweater-and-cargo-pants combination. Her voice is husky from too many cigarettes and the odd lilting crispness of her English school-educated Indian accent made me suddenly homesick for the land of my birth.

Mehta grew up in New Delhi, where she spent her childhood watching old Hindi films in movie theatres owned by her film distributor father. Interestingly enough, film wasn’t something she knew she was going to do – she sort of fell into it. When she graduated from university with a degree in philosophy and no clear plan, she got a summer job working as a gofer with a small New Delhi-based production company.

“Pretty soon, they found out that I couldn’t type,” Mehta laughs. “They said, uhh, this is not working out, why don’t you learn to do some editing – because their editor needed some help. So I got into editing and really loved it. Then the cinematographer told me he needed help and I started doing that and sound, and pretty soon I was writing little scripts.”

Mehta is self-taught, learning her craft on the job. To date, she has collaborated with the likes of George Lucas on The Young Indiana Jones and directed her own feature films including Sam and Me, Bollywood/Hollywood, Fire, Earth, and now Water. Though shot last, Water was actually the first screenplay to be conceived and became the inspiration for Mehta’s acclaimed Elements trilogy.

“There are some images that are indelible in our minds,” she says. “One such image that has stayed with me for ten years is that of a Hindu widow in the Holy City of Varanasi in India. Bent like a shrimp, her body wizened with age, white hair shaved close to her scalp, she scampered on all fours, furiously looking for something she had lost on the steps of the Ganges. Her distress was visible as she searched amidst the early morning throng of pilgrims. She was paid scant attention to, not even when she sat down to cry, unsuccessful in her attempt to find whatever she had lost.

“It was this image of a widow, sitting on her haunches, arms outstretched on her knees, head bowed down in defeat that became imprinted in my mind and led to the idea of a screenplay which was to become the film Water ten years later.”

Five of those ten years were a delay caused once again by the Hindu right. When Mehta started shooting Water in Varanasi, on the banks of the River Ganges, the cultural arm of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a fundamentalist Hindu group known for inciting communal riots and hatred, decided that Mehta was making another “anti-Hindu” film.

“The film is set in India in the late 1930s when the practice of child marriage was still prevalent,” explains Mehta. “Young girls were often wed to older men for economic reasons. When the men died, they left behind young widows who were farmed out to ashrams (institutions). Considered a financial burden by their families, this was generally the fate of most widows.”

Ignored by the rest of society, these widows led lives of abject poverty and self-deprivation, and given that they were a group of women with no clear male protector in a patriarchal society, they were often easy targets for abuse. The film, though fictional, reflects a reality that exists even today – one that the Hindu right does not want held up to the spotlight.

 “But I was puzzled by the response of the RSS (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the cultural arm of the BJP) because their own censors had read, approved and even complimented me on the script!” says Mehta.

Violence over the shooting of Water escalated to the point where angry mobs burned down the carefully constructed sets, burned effigies of Mehta and called her in the middle of the night with death threats. A desperate search for an alternate location followed, but, unable to secure the assurance of any government body that she and her crew would be protected, a furious and demoralized Mehta was forced to leave India.

“In retrospect,” she says, “Water reflected what was taking place in India in some form or other; the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and high intolerance for anything or anybody that viewed it with skepticism.”

Devyani Saltzman, Mehta’s daughter by ex-husband and fellow filmmaker Paul Saltzman, agrees. She worked on Water as a camera assistant in 1999 when it was shut down, and finally as the stills photographer in Sri Lanka in 2004. In her book Shooting Water: A Mother-Daughter Journey and the Making of a Film, she quotes Pavan K. Varma, an Indian writer, as saying, “All nations indulge in a bit of myth-making to bind their people together.” She believes Water was one of the casualties of maintaining that myth.

a mother-daughter journey
Nineteen-year-old Saltzman joined the crew of Water in 1999 with one clear goal in mind: to spend time with her mother. The two women had been estranged since 1990 when Mehta and her husband got divorced and Devyani chose to live with her father. “I was eleven and I didn’t always understand my mother’s pain and anger. So I chose my Dad; it was less complicated and I felt safe with him,” she says.

Water was to be the chance for mother and daughter to rediscover each other, and for Saltzman to get a little work experience while spending time in a country that she had lost touch with following her parents’ divorce. “It was a chance to go away together, out of the context of my two houses and shuttling back and forth in Toronto. I was finished with high school and it was a natural break.”

But then the riots happened.

“It pulled off the blinders. I had grown up believing (Hinduism) was one of the most tolerant and spiritual of faiths. The violence of the RSS was a wake-up call – but I don’t think it was really about Hinduism. They were using Hinduism for political gain; Hindu-Nationalist fervour in the guise of protecting the purity of the Ganges.”

It was a hard time for the nineteen-year-old Saltzman: against the backdrop of her troubled relationship with Mehta and the rioting fundamentalists, she also had to deal with the usual coming of age stuff – insecurity, angst and the huge crush she developed on one of the camera crew. The book follows Saltzman and Mehta’s parallel quests: Saltzman trying to figure whether her feelings were reciprocated by Vikram while Mehta traveled across the country searching for a safe place to shoot the film.

Without giving anything away, both women would eventually leave India – Mehta to take a break and then shoot Bollywood/Hollywood, a light “cathartic comedy” in Canada, and Saltzman to go to school in Oxford, where she had a nervous breakdown. There, for the first time, almost a decade after the divorce, all three members of the Mehta-Saltzman family sat down with a therapist and talked about the pain.

These confidences are reported in a voice so intimate that one could be forgiven for forgetting that one is reading, not listening. Saltzman admits that writing the book was a challenge. “Touching on the emotional aspects of the divorce and what my mom and I had to go through to reconnect was hard. Allowing yourself to go into raw feelings is scary. But I believe that’s the only way to heal them.”

She likens her experience to the Chisungu, a ritual performed by the Bemba of Africa. “I structured the book in three parts – India, Oxford and Sri Lanka – as an homage to rites of passage, which are often said to involve an initial stage of letting go of one’s old identity, a liminal period and a final re-emergence into the world as a grown-up. Shooting Water was a rite of passage. Through the trials and tribulations of making the film, I think both my mother and I were forced to grow.”

chip off the old block…
I can tell you that the book has a happy ending: The film gets completed and mother and daughter manage to make their peace with each other and now live together in Toronto.

They both beam with pride when asked to comment on each other’s art. Mehta says, “I’m a voracious reader and I can say that Devyani has an incredible honesty in her writing that you don’t find very often. Her style is sparse and I really must say I find it very accessible.”

Says Saltzman of Mehta: “I love her work – as a filmmaker, not just because she’s my mom. I think her greatest strength is her ability to convey a strong social message through a lyrical, intimate story.” Devyani admits that Water is her favourite of her mother’s films. “It’s my mother’s most mature and cinematically expressive film. One thing I noticed on the set of Water was that my mother kept cutting out dialogue. When I asked her about this she said she wanted to tell the story visually and that this has been a cleansing process for her as a director.”

And are they similar in their approach to storytelling?

 “I don’t know if it’s in the telling of the story but it’s definitely in what we’re attracted to,” says Saltzman. “Because like the film, [the book] is about politics – it’s very social and it had a cause and a purpose above itself. I can’t do work that I don’t feel that passion about and I know that she can’t either. So, in that way we’re very similar. Someone told me recently that we both get the same look in our eyes when we talk about things and that’s kind of terrifying but it actually shows that both of us have a similar drive.” They laugh.

Saltzman adds, “As a woman and a writer, I feel powerful when I don’t doubt my own abilities. With this book I have proved to myself that I can do what I love successfully. And I feel proud to be my mom’s daughter because her works raise the issue of women’s desires, strengths and how societies continue to undervalue women – whether the glass ceilings and unequal pay of the West, or dowry practices and female infanticide in the East. It bothers me that in the 21st century we still have to raise those issues.”

“But there’s no question of giving up,” says Mehta. “For every fundamentalist there are fifty people out there genuinely interested in progress. You can’t let the fundamentalists win.”


Geeta Nadkarni is a mad cat lady who moonlights as a print, TV and radio journalist. Write/pledge cat toys to geeta.nadkarni@gmail.com.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life