1996 was the year that filmmaker Deepa Mehta released Fire, a film about a lesbian relationship in modern India. It was the first part of her element trilogy -- poking a stick at various 'elements' of Indian traditionalism -- and after its first screening in an Indian theater, rioters burned that theater to the ground. The second part of the trilogy, Earth, explored the fractious relationship between India and Pakistan, and got a similar reception. In February 2000, Mehta began filming the concluding chapter, Water, which points a finger at the Hindu tradition of shunning widows. Such was the atmosphere that the film crew had to be escorted to the set every day by anti-riot brigades.
The director was burned in effigy and editorials were published advocating that she be beaten "black and blue." A well-organized mob of enraged Hindu activists, backed by powerful political parties, finally attacked and destroyed the film's sets, forcing a costly relocation out of India and a long delay in shooting. [Note to fans of V for Vendetta -- this is controversial filmmaking.] The Indian government's withdrawal of support for Water in the face of violence caused outrage among filmmakers worldwide. George Lucas famously took out a full-page ad in Variety, threatening never to work in India.
Water was ultimately finished under a cloak of secrecy in Sri Lanka, with a new cast that included Indian-Canadian actress Lisa Ray in a leading role. Sometimes referred to as the 'Indian Angelina Jolie,' Lisa is a world-renowned beauty and former model who first got noticed in the film Bollywood/Hollywood, a jab at the existential silliness of Bollywood musicals. Her role in Water, as a young widow facing horrendous discrimination, is a dive into the deep end of the pool of social criticism cinema. Cinematical recently spoke with Lisa about Water.
Ryan: As you know, there was a good deal of controversy surrounding the making of this film. The production ended once in disaster when the sets were burned and trashed by Hindu fanatics who perceived the film's message as anti-Hindu. What's your general take on all of that?
LR: I wasn't involved when Deepa made the first attempt, but it was so well-publicized that I was well aware of it. Then Deepa sent me the script. She sent it under a working title -- she didn't tell me what it was. It had some really cheesy title like River Moon or something like that. As soon as I read it and realized it was Water I just thought 'wow,' what a privilege it would be to be a part of this. If anything, the controversy surrounding it was an even more compelling reason to be a part of it. It's the triumph of the artistic, or the human spirit, over fundamentalist forces. I think that's the only way it affected me -- it only made me more determined to be part of the project. Of course, I would have wanted to be a part of this project on its own merits.