There are some images that become indelible in our minds. One such image that has stayed with me for 10 years is that of a Hindu widow in the Holy Indian city of Varanasi. 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 10 years later.
I was in Varanasi directing an episode of Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a television series for George Lucas. As a part of prep, I spent early mornings at the banks of the Ganges trying to get a feel for the city that attracted pilgrims from all over India. Amongst them were Hindu widows who, because of convoluted religious beliefs, were relegated to a life of deprivation and indignity. They came to Varanasi to die. Dying by the banks of the holy river guaranteed them instant salvation.
Though a Hindu myself, Hindu widows remained a bit of an anomaly to me until I started researching them for Water, the third film in my elemental trilogy of Fire and Earth. Their plight moved me enormously. These women lived out their lives as prescribed by a religious text that was nearly two thousand years old.
Water is set in India in the late 1930s when the practice of child marriage was still prevalent. 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. I decided to follow an eight-year-old widow and her life in an ashram where her presence starts to disrupt and affect the lives of the other residents, particularly Shakuntala, Kalyani, and the eighty-year old Patiraji.
In the year 2000, armed with the requisite permissions and script approval from the government of India, we assembled the cast and crew of Water in Varanasi. After six weeks of pre-production we started to shoot on the banks of the river Ganges. Two days into the shoot, what transpired next was unexpected and unprecedented. Overnight, violent protests by Hindu fundamentalists erupted in the city. Accusations of Water being anti-Hindu were cited as the cause of the film sets being thrown in the river, my effigy being burned, and protesters marching in the streets of Varanasi, denouncing the film and its portrayal of Hindu widows. Nobody had read the script. Bewildered by the turn of events, we tried to muster help from the state government who had given the script its approval, but to no avail. Amidst escalating protests and violence and personal death threats we were forced to shut down production.
In retrospect, 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; therefore, we were a soft and highly visible target.
To complete Water had become a personal mission, but it took four years before David Hamilton, the producer, and myself resurrected the project in Sri Lanka. To risk making the film in India again was dangerous and foolhardy at best. I had to recast. The luminous Nandita Das, the lead in Fire and Earth, had to be replaced by the younger Lisa Ray. Seema Biswas, of Bandit Queen fame, accepted Shabana Azmi’s role as Shakuntala. John Abraham, a star from Bollywood would play Narayan, the young Gandhian idealist and the fragile widow Kalayani’s love interest. For the role of eight-year old Chuyia, I found a young girl in Sri Lanka. Sarala came from a small village near Galle. Though she had no experience in front of the camera, she was a ‘natural’. The challenge was that she spoke neither Hindi nor English. Sarala learned her lines phonetically and I directed her through an interpreter and hand gestures. She was amazing.
Shooting in Sri Lanka was a breeze after our horrendous experience in Varanasi. Giles Nuttgens, who shot Fire and Earth was behind the camera again. I think Giles is brilliant. Dilip Mehta did the production design. To create India in Sri Lanka was a daunting task. We decided not to even try to re-create Varanasi. To do so, would have meant the budget going through the roof. Instead, our modest ghats were only a one-third of a mile long peppered with the requisite Hindu temples. Colin Monie cut the film in Toronto. I had seen The Magdalene Sisters, which he had edited, and felt that he had the right balance of sensitivity and passion.
Now that the film is complete, I can look back on the journey it has taken to make it. 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? Then the image of a widow ten years ago surfaces in my mind, as she sits on the steps by the Ganges, her toothless mouth making gasping sounds of despair. I found out later that she had lost her only pair of spectacles. Without them, she was half blind.