Shabana and Nandita had shaved their heads to play Varanasi’s widows. But the shooting was disrupted by right-wing protesters and Deepa and her cast abandoned the project.
Four years later Water was secretly revived. River Moon was the working title. Said Deepa, “I couldn’t make Water until I stopped being angry. It took me five years to get over my anger. Why are we so scared of showing the truth? Why can’t we question aspects of our 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? In fact, that’s a great subject for a film. Why do we want the West to think so well about us?”
But Deepa felt the struggle to make the film was worth her while. “The fact that I had to fight for five years made it more of a challenge for me. People ask me if the script has changed over the years. I have to say to them that the script hasn’t, I have. 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. 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, the kind that 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. Life is filled with despair. But I finally found hope in my story.”
She was very happy that the film was finally made. “Water’s journey has been traumatic but finally very satisfying. I came to terms with its disruption. My creative output wouldn’t have been complete without finishing the trilogy. Water was an experience that taught me tons. It wasn’t traumatic, just a huge pain in the neck. And we did get it made finally. So the pain ended in triumph of sorts. Fire went through the Indian censors without a single cut. I think we confuse censorship in film with ratings. Netflix and other streaming services have distinct guidelines as to age-appropriate content. Censorship is an entirely different kettle of fish where somebody else decides for you what you should see or not. It’s pretty absurd in my ethos for adults to be treated as children.”
Deepa’s daughter Devyani wrote a book on the Water experience. The book Shooting Water: A Mother-Daughter Journey & the Making of a Film, weaves both the personal and inter-personal aspects of Deepa’s life in a comprehensive behind-the-scenes account. Devyani’s book covered the period from the beginning of the shooting of Water in India in 1999 and ends with the film’s completion in Sri Lanka in 2004.
Water is the only film of Indian origin barring Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan to be shortlisted at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category.
Deepa says, “I can’t believe the irony of it. A film about the widows of India in Hindi, which I had to shoot in Sri Lanka because I wasn’t allowed to shoot in my home country actually got shortlisted for an Oscar.”