Win or lose on Sunday night at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Deepa Mehta's Water, nominated for best foreign-language film, will have scored its greatest triumph simply by existing.
In January 2000, rioters shut down her film set after just two days of filming. Asked by local officials to leave, Mehta took her story of an eight-year-old widow shunned by traditional society in the holy city of Varanasi to Sri Lanka.
In the course of this film's 11-year-long trip to the screen, she weathered death threats, lawsuits and an unexpected reconciliation with a distant daughter. So, an Oscar, if not exactly anti-climactic, would not be the most extraordinary thing to have come Mehta's way.
“I just feel that, maybe, if a film has gone through this type of journey, the payoff has been so generous,” she said.
Water has earned close to $14 million in worldwide ticket sales and is scheduled to open in Indian theatres on March 9.
“What makes the film work is the insight into the characters and their psychological impact,” said novelist Salman Rushdie, who has championed the cause of Water since its inception.
“Water” also benefited from a change in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rules this year that allows a foreign-language entry to be in a different language from its country of origin, as long as the “creative talent of that country exercised artistic control”. Mehta and the producer David Hamilton are Canadians, and the film qualified as Canada's official entry.
India, where Mehta was born and lived until 1973, "would never have put me up," she said.
In a year when so many high-quality foreign-language films generated Oscar consideration, “Water” survived one preliminary cut, a secondary trim to nine finalists, and a nerve-racking nomination morning before joining “Pan’s Labyrinth” (Mexico), “Days of Glory” (Algeria), “After the Wedding” (Denmark), and “The Lives of Others” (Germany) among the nominees.
Nancy Utley, the chief operating officer for Fox Searchlight Pictures, which distributed “Water” in the United States, said she had never worked on a film with such a “deep back story,” which helped to build strong word of mouth.
To increase the film’s visibility and credibility in this country, Fox staged a well-attended event in October 2005 at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, where Mehta talked of her “trial by fire.” Last fall, copies of the film were sent to all 6,000 Academy members, not just to judges on the foreign-language committee.
Vendors who normally extract substantial fees “donated services and cut materials for free,” Utley said, and many women donated time freely to help the film. “It was unlike what happens on a day-to-day basis” in Hollywood, she added.
Hamilton, who has worked with Mehta on other films (including “Earth,” India’s official Oscar entry in 1998) described the events surrounding “Water” as “miraculous.” He also called it a tribute to Mehta’s passion, which, he said, has necessitated these “rules of engagement”: after she finishes writing scenes and shows them to him, ”I can say anything I want, and she can’t answer within 24 hours.”
The movie also produced an unexpected reunion for Mehta, 56, with her daughter, Devyani Saltzman, from whom she had been almost estranged since a divorce forced Saltzman, when she was 11, to choose between her father and mother for legal custody. Their “rebirth” began in India and accelerated in Sri Lanka after Saltzman’s graduation from Oxford. A result was “Shooting Water,” a poignant 283-page memoir written by Saltzman (with an afterword by Mehta) that was published last year by Newmarket Press.
“I was so proud of her courage,” Mehta said, speaking of her daughter’s decision to explore publicly the depth of their relationship. “The courage to face her demons at such a young age.”
Yet even the last step to the Oscar nomination was not without drama. Watching the early morning proceedings on television, Mehta, her daughter and Hamilton had concluded that as the winning films were being announced, “if two films started with ‘L’, we were dead,” Hamilton recounted. When “The Lives of Others” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” were named alphabetically, and with only one slot left and Pedro Almodovar’s well-received “Volver” still unannounced, “my daughter started to leave the study,” Mehta recalled.
“It was horrible, it was mind-numbing,” Mehta added, sentiments shared by Utley and other Fox Searchlight personnel, who were watching in a condo at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Then came the words finally certifying “Water.” “I burst into tears, with relief,” Utley said.
Lisa Ray, the actress who said she wept unabashedly after first reading the script and who played one of the lead roles, was at her parents’ home in Toronto when she heard the news. “It was a genuine out-of-body experience,” she said of her reaction.
Destiny is not lost on Mehta, whose title (“water can flow or water can be stagnant”) and themes (“the importance of tolerance in a world of intolerance”) provided strength throughout the process. Of the recent turn of positive events, including the decision by one of India’s major filmmakers, Ravi Chopra, to secure the rights and distribute the film, she noted, “it feels very good to be here.”