Storm on the sacred Ganges: A real-life tale of politics'Water' Too Strong / Indian Mob Halts Movie
By Pamela Constable
Paris, Thursday, February 24, 2000
VARANASI, India - As the sun rises on the Ganges, the great stone steps of Tulsi Ghat begin to fill with the faithful. Some people kneel over the river to pray, others light candle offerings. Many wade in and dunk their heads for a purifying dip, oblivious to the garbage floating by, the laundrymen slapping dirty clothes against the banks, the mud-caked water buffalo being led down for a scrub.
It is a tumultuous scene that has been repeated every morning for hundreds of years, in a setting so majestic and instantly identifiable that it has been used as a backdrop in numerous Hindi films.
So why is Deepa Mehta, the Indian-born filmmaker who planned to film "Water" at Tulsi Ghat this month, slumped instead on her parents' sofa in New Delhi, her shoot halted by the state government, her sets vandalized by mobs, her crew banished from Varanasi and her movie blasted by Hindu watchdog organizations as an offense to their faith and traditions?
The answer cuts to the heart of a cultural and political struggle that periodically pits religious forces against secular ones in this socially conservative but proudly tolerant democracy. This time, the controversy over "Water" has also opened an embarrassing schism in India's governing pro-Hindu party.
"Water," which is about a young girl in Varanasi in the 1930s, tackles sensitive issues that are rarely discussed in Indian society: the lowly status and exploitation of widows, prostitution, child marriage, caste taboos and religious superstition.
"'Water' is a slap in the face of our society," said Shri Onkar Bhave, an official of a national pro-Hindu organization. "Deepa Mehta wanted to defame all Hindus and show only the dark side of our society. We have been fighting attackers for 1,200 years. We must preserve our dharma, our way of life. We have never attacked anyone, but we will not let them come and attack us."
The author of this alleged assault on Hindu values is a 49-year-old filmmaker, based in Toronto, with a penchant for provocative screenplays, an émigré who professes to love her native land and religion, yet has repeatedly returned to India to make movies that expose the social, religious and ethnic gulfs that divide this diverse and densely populated country.
"I am not a social reformer - I am a filmmaker," Ms. Mehta insisted in a recent interview in New Delhi. "I wanted to make a film, and it was cleared by the government. Instead I am sitting here doing nothing. My crew has been emotionally terrorized, and I have been tried and sentenced before the film has even come out.
"This intolerance is not the India I know," she added. "It is the voice of fascism, and it is very scary."
The current uproar is not the first time Ms. Mehta's work has offended the sensibilities of organized Hinduism. The first film of her Indian trilogy, "Fire," created an uproar for portraying a lesbian relationship. The second film, "Earth," explored the brutal religious violence that accompanied the partition into India and Pakistan in 1947.
Now, with "Water," Ms. Mehta has tackled an equally uncomfortable subject. The plot concerns a girl who is married and widowed at age 9 and banished to a widows' shelter, where she is forced into prostitution. A young man of high Hindu caste offers to marry her, but family complications arise and the girl, trapped in a web of superstition and taboo, commits suicide.
TO HINDU advocacy groups, who were leaked copies of the original script, the subject matter was problematic because it evoked cruelties of caste and custom. They said what offended them was the dialogue, especially lines in which characters described widows and prostitutes as "spoiled goods" and suggested that gods and Brahmans can "sleep with anyone they want."
"This is rubbish, and it hurts the sentiments of all Hindus," said Kaushal Kishore Mishra, an official of a Hindu activist group in Varanasi. "None of this is part of our tradition. Freedom of expression doesn't mean you can tell lies and hurt people's sentiments.
"This is a struggle for the very motherhood of India."
What infuriated the guardians of Hindu culture most of all, however, was that Ms. Mehta chose Varanasi, a city whose myriad temples draw tourists and pilgrims from around the world. They alleged that she had defamed their town, its widows and its "Ganga" - a river believed to be so sacred that people drink its polluted waters daily to cleanse their souls.
"She even dared to say that the Ganga is made of ordinary water," Mr. Mishra fumed. "That's what hurt most of all."
Determined to stop the filming, Mr. Mishra's group and other Hindu activists organized demonstrations. Early this month, a mob assaulted the "Water" set at Tulsi Ghat, toppling the scaffolding into the Ganges. One activist announced that he was going to commit suicide, tied himself to a stone and threw himself into the river, where he was quickly rescued.
Officials of Varanasi and Uttar Pradesh state, which is controlled by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, acted swiftly - not against the vandals but against Ms. Mehta, who was ordered to stop filming and soon left for New Delhi. Three other state governments have since invited her to resume her filming there, while supportive messages have poured in from India's secular establishment.
But the instant capitulation by regional officials to the attackers' demands, and the equivocal reaction from central authorities in New Delhi, has highlighted the formidable hold of conservative Hindu forces on a government that purports to be moderate and all-embracing, and whose electoral survival depends on alliances with secular parties.
"There is nothing anti-Hindu in my film. This is all political," said Ms. Mehta, asserting that the film's "controversial" lines were either "taken out of context," spoken by negative characters or deleted from the final script. "We thought we had all the approvals we needed, but perhaps we were naive."
On Varanasi's ghats, or steps into the Ganges, where every bather has by now heard of Ms. Mehta and her film, opinions about "Water" are impassioned but mixed. One Hindu priest, pausing as he smeared sacred paint on his followers' foreheads, dismissed the film as "garbage" and said it defamed all Hindus. But another group of worshipers disagreed.
"The script was O.K., but a group of politicians formed a gang and went against it," said Daru Ram, a shopkeeper who bathes in the Ganges each morning, as his father and grandfather did before him.
EVEN AMONG the city's Hindu mahants, or holy men, many of whom dress in loincloths to pray at the river then change into suits to report to professional jobs, reaction to the film has not been uniformly negative. Some suggested that the script was not offensive, but that Ms. Mehta had exacerbated suspicions by not taking the local community into her confidence before setting up production.
Veer Badhra Mishra, a gray-haired mahant who lives at Tulsi Ghat and heads the department of civil engineering at Varanasi Hindu University, said he had read the script that Ms. Mehta showed him "line by line" and found nothing offensive in it. He said he was "saddened" by the controversy and worried that such political conflicts may rip apart the fabric of contemporary Indian society.
"Hindu tradition is not a doll made of glass," he said. "It has withstood much pressure and many invasions without breaking.
"Maybe Deepa Mehta should have been more careful, but this is a large and diverse country. It cannot be ruled along the lines of caste or creed. I consider myself a devout Hindu, but as long as we tell the truth, the system cannot fail."