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February 1, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ Deepa Mehta

'The film has to be shot in Varanasi'

Deepa Mehta, director of Water, hopes her meeting with Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley to New Delhi would sort out the controversy over her film. She intends to appeal to Jaitley after her film's sets were attacked by protestors in Varanasi even as a crew of over a hundred and ten was preparing to shoot.

A non-resident Indian, Deepa Mehta had been camping in the holy city for almost six weeks, selecting various sites for shooting her film. Her crew flew in almost at the same time and was putting up the sets, lights, reflectors etc when the mobs rewrote the script. Armed with a formal approval of her film script, Mehta went to Varanasi to finish the shooting in one go. "I had no inkling someone would disrupt our film in a manner like this," she told Onkar Singh in an exclusive interview.

Why is it your films run into problems even before they go on the sets?

None of my films have run into problems before they went on the sets. This is the first film that has faced this kind of problem even before a single shot was taken.

But didn't you face similar problems when you were shooting Earth in Delhi, when many people thought your Partition sequences would engineer riots in the walled city?

I did not have any problem of this nature. I do not remember anything of the sort. Yes, we did have a problem relating to the place where we were shooting the film. But we did not encounter the kind of problem we have faced this time.

Did you have any inkling that you could be heading for trouble?

No, I had no idea the people of Varanasi would react in a manner like this. I think only a few people are against my shooting the film in Varanasi. Why should there be a problem when the script of the film had been approved? The I&B ministry had given a clearance to my script.

Not just that, we also had a clearance from the state government. We had the clearance of the district magistrate.

But I did hear some vague talk that some people were protesting against the filming. Some said it was a Christian conspiracy. Some people said this was a film about an untouchable and how he falls in love with a Brahmin widow. I said this was not true at all. There was no Christian conspiracy nor was the film being funded to show Indian society in bad light. The trouble began when the shooting was still being planned. I have never heard of any film set being attacked in any part of the world.

Who is behind this campaign?

I have no clue. Some say it is the Sanskrit Vidyapeeth or some organization with a similar name that was behind it. It is wrong to say someone came to meet me. Nobody came to see me at any point of time.

Did you try to contact them?

I told them I would be too happy to discuss the script with them. But they wanted me to publish the script after which they would decide whether they would allow the film to be shot in Varanasi or not. They wanted the Hindus to cast their vote on the issue. I still want to discuss the matter with them but I am not going to publish my script.

What was their response?

Their response was no response. They did not even bother to react to my offer.

Some reports said you had the script personally cleared by I&B Minister Arun Jaitley. Is that true?

No. This is not true. I had submitted the script to the ministry six months back and the clearance came a few weeks back.

Some of the RSS cadres have been saying that you have been taking undue advantage of your status as NRI. You come to India when you have to make films and make your money. Otherwise you are happily enjoying life in Canada. What do you say to that?

What does NRI mean? Isn't NRI a non-resident Indian? When I am getting awards the people in India like to write about me and hail me. But now they accuse me of all sorts of things. Isn't Amartya Sen an NRI? Just because I am not in the limelight does not mean that I am here only on a money-grabbing spree.

There are others who allege that you deliberately create a controversy with a view to selling your film.

How can I sell a film that is never going to be made! Fire was released one year after it was released elsewhere. It had been running for three weeks before Shiv Sainiks attacked theatres in Delhi. Till date I have not made even a single penny from that film.

Is there a conspiracy against you, with someone behind it? Did you check it out?

If that is true then it is very sad. I am a director. I get the permissions for my film. I plan my shots for the next day when others are taking rest. I do not have the time to go into who is behind something or the other.

What is your budget? How much have you lost?

The total budget of my film is Rs 45 million. Already I have lost two and a half crore. The whole crew has been there for six weeks. We have been selecting the locations, making the sets for the locations. One hundred and ten people including the actors are camping in Varanasi. I am here in Delhi to sort out the matter by meeting the minister. After that, I plan to go back to Benaras.

The district administration has said they have withdrawn the permission to shoot? Have they told you about it?

Nobody from the district administration has told us what you are telling me. The only thing they have said is that they are referring the whole thing back to the state government.

Would you take up the matter with the prime minister, if required?

I do not want to give it a political twist. If needs be maybe I would request the prime minister for an appointment and explain to him the entire position.

Some people allege you are projecting a negative side to India through your films, as Satyajit Ray did earlier. Do you agree?

Satyajit Ray is my favourite film-maker. Even to be mentioned along with him is a big compliment for me. I do not know why they say I am projecting a negative image of India. Do you think the commercial Hindi films project a positive image of India? The image of India is very complex and no one film can project it one way or the other. A country of this size and diversity cannot be projected this way. The beauty of India comes with a negative point.

Two actresses who have stuck with you are Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Why?

I think both of them are wonderful actresses. They are very talented. I admire them because they are very strong women as well.

Did you ask Shabana to shave her head or did she do it on her own?

Since she is playing the role of the widow, therefore, as per Hindu customs, she has to be shown that way. She could have worn a wig but that would not have been proper. Hence she decided to shave off her head.

You have been quoted as saying that you are not going to run away.

That is right. I am committed to complete the film. I will do it.

Do you think you can shoot the movie elsewhere?

No. I cannot show Varanasi at any other place. This just would not suit the film. The film is based in Varanasi and it has to be shot there.

Are you disappointed at the turn of events?

I am heart-broken.

You are committed to carry on?

If I am allowed to do that.

Read the entire controversy

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