Having made this triumphant film do you think the struggle has been worth it?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! The fact that I had to fight for five years made it a better challenge for me. People ask me if the script has changed over the years. The script hasn't changed. I have. Today I've been able to look at the same script from a different viewpoint. If I had made Water five years ago in Varanasi it would've been a different film.
Was the shift of location from Varanasi to Sri Lanka a bit of a compromise?
It isn't. It just gave me more freedom to do what I wanted to. Varanasi had become a character in it itself. I couldn't handle it as a filmmaker. As this gigantic place of worship Varanasi had become too large in my mind. Once I moved away from Varanasi I felt creatively liberated.
Didn't Sri Lanka shrink your vision?
I think it made it larger. It gave me much more freedom to do what I wanted. The canvas became much larger.
You've made the widows' ashram look incredibly squalid. Didn't you think would put audiences off?
Not at all! While making the film I wasn't thinking of the audience at all. I said what I had to. It's been such an incredible experience of growth for me. You do something that you believe in. But you've no control over how the world would react to what you do. But the way people have responded to Water....With Fire it was mostly women who felt strongly. With Earth it was neither. But this time I've seen both women and men responding emotionally.
Where did the idea for a film on the abandoned widows come from?
Eleven years ago I first went to Varanasi to shoot Young Indiana Jones. That's where I first met an abandoned widow. I followed her to an ashram. It was a bit of shock. We all know about widows. But the whole ashram syndrome struck me as being utterly poignant. The visuals stayed with me. When I decided to do an elemental trilogy I knew Water would be about these women who lived and died by water....Water is the ultimate equalizer. Either it gives or destroys life.
The film concludes with some main characters coming to extremely tragic ends... Not for me. I saw the end (where the raped minor girl is taken away from the squalid ashram by the Gandhian hero) as hopeful. I think
The rape of the little widow Chuhiya is a sacrifice made for the sins of society. Chuhiya is the catalyst in the plot. Whoever she touches changes in one way or another
Your film is brutal in expressing sexual repression.
I don't shudder from the truth because it's the truth, and the truth has to be told. Societal discrimination horrifies me. There's the other cinema which doesn't tell the truth. That's another way of expressing oneself. I guess that 'brutal' attitude comes from the harsh reality I had to face five years ago when my film was stopped.
I realized more strongly than ever, that there's no point in trying to stop the harsh reality from coming out in the open. Life is filled with despair. But I finally found hope in my story.
Do you think Water has the potential to turn into a reformist film?
I think it does...On March 8, Amnesty International has chosen it to be the film of the year. I feel silly even talking about the impact of Water. I don't think I've done what it has achieved. The film has gone beyond me. Recently, in Ottawa it was chosen as the activist film of the year. I don't know what it's about the film...but after first five minutes of the film...when Chuhiya asks her father 'For how long am I a widow?' I forget I've made the film. There's something about this little girl and the other characters that have gone beyond me. They're calling it the Water phenomena. I'm inundated by people responding to the film. And they respond more to the theme of humanitarianism than the cause. That theme comes through. I'm so glad. Water is about desire and hope.
I think your Kalyani(Lisa Ray) is a tribute to Bimal Roy.
Oh, absolutely! Kalyani is my Bandini. Water is in many ways a tribute to Bimal Roy. One of my favourite directors Luis Bunuel said that one of the ways a film becomes universal is by staying particular to a culture. Water goes into a specific cultural phenomenon-the abandoned widows of India. From there it goes into the theme of deprivation and lack of dignity in all spheres. Post-Water people in Canada are talking about the persecution of the aboriginals. In Karachi, they connected my film with the plight of divorcees. In South Africa where Water has done extremely well they're talking about apartheid. Pain and suffering aren't restricted to any one community, gender or culture. Water embraces any kind of pain. It means different things to different people. A Jewish women in Paris told me Water reminded her of the Jewish community where if a girl marries outside her community the parents blacken the mirrors at home.
In this context I love John's conversation with Lisa where he warns her that what's good in tradition shouldn't be allowed to die. I wanted the ideas to flow naturally from the film. In many ways, Manorama and Lisa Ray play the two polarities of femininity... Yes, one is the muddy Water; the other is the lotus flower. That's where Arjun's line from Bhagavat Gita came in. That's the line I told Lisa when I narrated the script to her. The only way my Kalyani can survive is like a lotus in the muddy Water. Lisa worked so hard. And can you imagine how well John has done! He learnt to play the flute and to say the Sanskrit lines. Not for a second do we feel he isn't Narayan. Many of the widows are played by non-professional actors. Mridula for instance is a doctor of Hindi literature from Pune. She always wanted to act. She was apprehensive about not wearing a blouse.
You keep going back in time through your films.
I'm a sucker for challenges. I believe unless we know where we come from, we won't know where we're going.
If and when Water releases in India, the self-appointed custodians of the Hindu religion would say you're selling our misery to the West?
If they think Hinduism is not about the truth then I guess they're right. Why are we so scared of showing the truth? Why can't we question aspects of out tradition that aren't so great? By doing so we don't become any less great. Why are we so scared of showing our past? Think of what cinema would be if there were no films about the Jewish holocaust! Why they are not scared of showing their horrific past? Why are we scared? That's the question for another film. Why do we want the West to think so well about us?
The Making of Water would be as interesting as Water?
Maybe later, yes I would like that. I've made a better film than I'd have five years ago. What can't kill you makes you stronger. Those fundamentalist protests in Varanasi made me far surer of my script. The camera did and said things that the characters couldn't.
Don't you think the film must be released in India?
It must. Right now the Indian rights don't belong to me. But I'm not angry. I couldn't make Water until I stopped being angry. It took me five years to stop being angry. But there's a lingering regret. Instead of doing something about the abandoned widows they aren't even getting to see a film on the theme. It makes for humbling viewing. I felt humbled making it. Water is quite lyrical and funny in its own strange way. I'm glad for the way the world is responding to it. It's so sad that people in India can't see it yet