Saturday, June 25, 2005 - Such a long journey for Mehta - Such a long journey for Mehta

Jun. 25, 2005. 08:21 AM
Such a long journey for Mehta
Five years in the making, Deepa Mehta's charged saga Water will open the Toronto film festival The honour recognizes the passionate Indo-Canadian director's fearlessness, writes Martin Knelman

Deepa Mehta's Water has been given the prestigious opening-night gala slot at the 30th annual Toronto International Film Festival, the Toronto Star has learned.

Festival director Noah Cowan and CEO Piers Handling will make the announcement at a media launch Tuesday at the Fairmont Royal York hotel.

And on Thursday, Sept. 8, the glamorous and provocative Mehta — a.k.a. "Queen of Controversy" — will walk down the red carpet and enter Roy Thomson Hall in triumph.

Earlier this week before the decision had been made, Mehta made what turned out to be the understatement of the year: "This has been a very long journey, and finally we are going to open the movie in theatres in Canada on Nov. 4. But I'm hoping it will turn up first in the festival. I think they should be able to find a spot for it their lineup, don't you?"

Mehta probably assumed, like most insiders, that for opening night the festival would choose between two movies that had their world premieres in Cannes last month — both by acclaimed auteurs with historic ties to the Toronto festival.

But David Cronenberg's The History of Violence and Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies will have their festival galas on other nights. To open, the festival has opted for the world premiere of a politically charged saga about the exploitation of young women in 1930s India.

With this selection the festival takes a major step forward. For only the second time in its history, it has given this coveted opening slot to a movie written and directed by a woman. (Patricia Rozema's I've Heard the Mermaids Singing had the place of honour in 1987.) And for the first time, it is turning over its top spot to a filmmaker who represents not just English Canada or French Canada but the world's most diverse, multicultural city.

Mehta, best known for her 2002 satiric romp Bollywood, Hollywood, is a talented, lion-hearted star of that new Toronto. Born in India, the daughter of a film distributor, she grew up watching Bollywood extravaganzas.

But at 55, she has lived more than half of her life in Canada, having moved here in 1973 after meeting and marrying Toronto producer Paul Saltzman and becoming a partner in his company, Sunrise Productions.

(The marriage broke up in the early 1990s. Mehta lives in downtown Toronto with their daughter but spends several months every year in India.)

For a long time, it distressed Mehta that she didn't feel she quite belonged either in her adopted country or the country of her birth. The sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious conflicts and mishmash of old country vs. new land have become a theme for her — as in her charming 1991 feature Sam and Me, about the unlikely friendship of two misfit immigrants with different backgrounds.

Now it looks as if Sept. 8 will add a sweet grace note to a long ordeal. Mehta did not have a lot of fun when, five years ago, she was targeted by angry mobs in India, who burned down her sets, issued death threats and forced her to shut down production. It took several years for her to regroup and get the movie back into production, with a new cast, in Sri Lanka.

Water tells a story that a lot of people in India don't want to hear: the shocking treatment of young girls who, during the 1930s, were forced into marriages, only to become shunned like lepers when their husbands died, before being shipped off to horrifying widows' houses, where they were isolated and forced into prostitution.

Early reports from first screenings last month in Toronto are that this is Mehta's strongest movie yet. And it ends on a note of hope, with a sense things are looking up as India gets ready to shed its dark past.

Some dialogue is in Hindi, but the heroine speaks English. Water is the last film of Mehta's elemental trilogy after Fire and Earth — and she says she felt incomplete without it. She hopes the film will prove that those who tried to stop her were wrong. The original location chosen was the holy city of Varansi, where widow houses still exist on the banks of the Ganges. The leading actors had shaved their heads and shooting was about to begin in early 2000. Then 2,000 demonstrators, led by the leaders of religious political parties, staged a violent demonstration, vandalizing the set and throwing it into the river.

"Breaking up the sets was too mild an act," according to a statement from one of the leaders of the protest. "The people involved with the film should have been beaten black and blue. They come with foreign money to make a film which shows India in poor light because that is what sells in the West. The West refuses to acknowledge our achievements in any sphere, but is only interested in our snake charmers and child brides. And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them."

In the wake of continuing protests, the government withdrew her location permits and the film was shut down. It took four years, but eventually she got the cameras rolling — in Sri Lanka rather than India, and with a completely different cast.

She decided she could not go ahead with the original stars because they no longer looked the part. Her new cast features Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray and John Abraham.

An added attraction: The great Bollywood composer, A.R. Rahman, was overwhelmed by the film, and wrote a score that adds a dimension and gives Mehta the ultimate seal of approval.

Anyone who has met Deepa Mehta knows she is strong-willed, passionate and fearless. By getting this movie made, her way, Mehta has proved her point. And on Sept. 8, at Toronto's glitziest showbiz event of the year, the elite of her adopted hometown will be on their feet cheering. That will be her moment of vindication.


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