A good place to begin this review is to ask the question: why would anyone want to read this book? Most of us who have followed events in India and the politics of religious fundamentalism knew about the brouhaha that surrounded Water when it was originally planned to be filmed in Varanasi, one of India's most holy cities, with an original cast of huge box office stars like Shabana Azmi in key roles. In 1999 when preparations for the film's shooting began in India, Azmi was also a Member of Parliament and I suspect a large part of the agitation by the Hindu right wing was because she is a Muslim by faith and a vocal critic of religious fundamentalists. Years earlier Raj Kapoor had shown the plight of widows in "Prem Rog" in which the lead widow character (played by Padmini Kolhapure) is raped by her dead husband's brother. I don't remember any agitiation then. Or perhaps those were different times.
The film was shelved because of the agitation, and faded from memory and people's attention shifted to other things. Until earlier this year when Water resurfaced again (pun not intended) -- this time as a completed film that earned rave reviews in the Toronto Film Festival where it premiered and later when it was released in the U.S. (At the time of writing of this review the film had still not been cleared for release in India). So to answer my question, the only reason someone would read this book would be because the person has seen the film, possibly also followed the original controversy, and like me was interested in learning how it eventually got made. After seeing the film in the US I had learnt that the "Varanasi" and "ghat" sequences of the film had not been shot in India at all but in Sri Lanka. So how exactly did all this come about? How also was the filmmaking kept such a secret that the media -- neither Sri Lankan nor Indian -- did not get a whiff of it? All this is answered in the book. The events that lead up to the making of the film read almost like a mystery novel, except that we know the ending. But that does not detract from the mystery.
Before going any further, I want to ask another question. Would anyone have read the book if it had been only about family and second chances in relationships? Having read the book my answer is: I think not. Because as much as Saltzman succeeds in capturing the reader's attention in the gripping first part (India, 1999) where she describes the events that lead to the film's cancellation in India, and third part (Sri Lanka, 2004) which describes the film finally being made in Sri Lanka, she fails to sustain our interest in her failed relationships with her mother or Vikram, the latter an Indian crew member of the film. The eventual rapproachment with her mother is not sufficiently explained. The reason why she chose at age 11 to live with her father and not mother after their divorce is unconvincing. (It is also surprising that Canadian family courts don't spell out visitation or shared custody for minor children. In the US total isolation of one parent happens only in rare cases of child endangerment by that parent.) Saltzman's emotional and mental breakdown while studying at Oxford, that she decribes in Part Two (Oxford 2000) comes almost as a postscript. Thankfully for the reader, Saltzman devotes a mere ten pages to this part and then the story moves along.
Part I (India, 1999) begins in December 1999 at the dawn of the new millennium in Varanasi. It was also the time when the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled in the cental government and in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the city of Varanasi is located. In this part of the book Saltzman describes the research she did for her mother and the widows she interviewed for the movie. The first widow she meets via "Pinku" her informant, is ninety-something year-old Sundarbai who has but a "few teeth left" and who most certainly is the inspiration for Madhumati, (played by actress Manorama) the "empress dowager of the widow's house" in the film. However, Sundarbai does not live in an Ashram but in a small, damp, and windowless rented room just big enough for her metal cot. Recall Madhumati's surroundings in the film. Two other places Saltzman researched were the widows' ashram hidden below the fancy Sunview Guesthouse, favored by western tourists and affluent visitors to the city, and the Hijras' tenement -- the apartment complex which was home to transvestites. At the widows' home, Giles, the cameraman has to smuggle his handycam in to film the stark living conditions of the widows. After visitng the hijras' home Saltzman writes:
I realized that this home, this outsider's community of men living as women, seemed a lot like the widows' ashram -- both communities lived apart from society, falling between the cracks of social definition.
All this is fascinating reading. As is the New Year's Eve gala on the Varanasi ghats addressed by the Dalai Lama. It is especially an eye-opener that when Mehta approaches the minister for Information and Broadcasting to make changes to the film's script so that filming can go on, she is instead sent to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) headquarters proving who was really pulling the strings in the government. As per the RSS directive Mehta changes the young widow's name from Janaki, a name for Sita the wife of the Hindu god Ram, to Kalyani. But this does not help and the agitations in Varanasi continue where protestors continue to march and shout slogans based on rumors about what the film was really about. Then there is a suicide attempt by a local Shiv Sena member who in very filmi fashion ties a stone around his waist and jumps into the Ganges. Finally all filming is stopped by the Varanasi District Magistrate's office despite more agitation, this time by the film's crew demanding the right to continue filming.
Ironically, although Mehta is critical of of Hindu fundamentalism she follows Hindu religious tradition by having a Mahurat ceremony before shooting begins, in Varanasi (and later again in Sri Lanka). Mahurat, for the uninitiated, is a Hindu religious ceremony considered auspicious before beginning a project. In this ceremony the gods are propitiated with chanting by priests around the the holy fire ending with the distribution of prasad. Every Bollywood film has a Mahurat. Bollywood believes that no film can be a box office success without a Mahurat ceremony. The opposite obviously is not true because hundreds if not thousands of movies bomb at the box office despite the mandatory mahurat ceremony!
What Saltzman fails to convincingly explain is why Mehta chose not to shoot the film in West Bengal even though the government of that state invited her to do so. West Bengal has a left-wing communist government and it is unlikely there would have been the same fundamentalist agitation as in Uttar Pradesh. Instead she says that had Mehta agreed to film in Bengal (or Madhya Pradesh which had a Congress government and had also invited Mehta to shoot there) she would have been a pawn in a much larger game. What game that is was never explained.
In Part three, Saltzman dwells a lot on the insurgency between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government in northern Sri Lanka. Reading this part explains why the "ghats of Varanasi" in the film do not look like the real ghats of Varanasi. Despite internationally acclaimed set technicians Mehta could not capture the noise, dirt, and chaos of the real Varanasi and the vegetation and trees in the film look much different from what one actually sees in Varanasi. The Sri Lanka setting would probably also explain why film shows a Tamil wedding on the ghats (I noted this in my review of the film). The Sri Lankan filming is not without hiccups. A local cinema owner has to be paid off for turning his music down. The cinema was located next door to the shooting venue and the music would interfere with the film's dialogue and music. The cinema owner learnt that a Canadian film was being shot and decided he would use this opportunity to make hay.
Besides the loss in the authenticity of the surroundings, the delay in the filming also hurt the film with the loss of Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, who were to have played the roles of Shakuntala and Kalyani respectively had the film been shot in 1999 as planned. Azmi could not be cast because her high profile as Member of Parliament would have jeopardized the film, and it might not have been possible to keep the film a secret. Mehta's explanation for dropping Das was that it was four years since Varanasi and she no longer possessed the "deep innocence" needed for the character of Kalyani. Not true, in my opinion; I saw Das in Delhi in late 2005 and she looked beautiful and young and could have played Kalyani as well as, if not better, than Lisa Ray. Saltzman reveals that not casting Das (who played important roles in Mehta's earlier films Fire and Earth) cost Mehta her friendship with Das. I hope for the sake of Mehta they make up soon.
Book Description: Recounts Devyani Saltzman's remarkable story of reconnecting with her mother, international award-winning filmmaker Deepa Mehta. When Devyani was eleven, her parents divorced, and the courts required her to choose which parent to live with. She chose to live with her father in Toronto and then spent the next eight years navigating between two religions (Hinduism and Judaism), two cultures (Indian and Canadian), two traditions, and two people -- belonging to both and to neither at once. In late 1999, at the age of nineteen, Devyani was invited by her mother to join her in the holy city of Benares, India, to work on Water, the final installment in Mehta's acclaimed Elements trilogy (which started with Fire and Earth). After only a week of shooting, Water became the target of a series of politically motivated attacks. The movie was shut down. Devyani went off to Oxford and, three years later, rejoined her mother when production resumed in Sri Lanka. What began as a journey to heal deep wounds from the past turned into a five-year odyssey to complete the film. Transformative and inspiring, Shooting Water chronicles Saltzman's life-changing experience in India, the struggle to produce a film, and, through that struggle, the emergence of a deeper love between mother and daughter.
More about Devyani Saltzman
[Nonfiction] [Reviews] [Bookshelf] [Sawnet]