When I say finally, I really mean it, as it took Mehta over six years to complete this film since she was unable to film it in Varanasi – a holy city in India – due to Hindu fundamental protests. She actually had to recast it and film it in Sri Lanka under a false name to get the project done.
All in all, I recommend going to see the film just because of the journey she went on to get it out there. It’s really interesting to see a film all about the trials of women under the patriarchical stronghold of Hinduism, especially during the rise of Hindu nationalism. It wasn’t my favorite movie ever – but it was powerful and I recommend it to everyone. [Plus, Bollywood hunka hunka burning love John Abraham plays the male lead – not very convincingly – but excellent eye-candy. I’ve been a fan since the dubiously named film Jism.]
Anyway, there are some interesting hapa sidenotes to this film. One, Mehta cast Indian-Polish model Lisa Ray in one of the main roles of this film. When Water showed at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, some people questioned Mehta on her casting of hapa Ray in the role – saying Ray looks essentially white. Mehta defended her casting by saying Ray – who has lived in India since the age of 12 – is perhaps even more Indian than Mehta herself. Also, Mehta’s daughter – Devyani Saltzman, another hapa – also recently published a book, Shooting Water, about her experience helping her mother on the film and the navigation of her Canadian Jewish/Indian identity.
Speaking of South Asian films by diasporic auteurs, the Gurinder Chadha/Paul Mayeda Berges cinematic version of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Mistress of Spices is about to hit theaters. Right now, you can catch it at the amazing Naz 8 – the chain of Indian multiplexes found in Northern and Southern California. Filmed and set in Oakland, the film stars Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai – known as the world’s most beautiful woman – and Dylan McDermott. Hmmm, not exactly who I would have cast … but anyway.
I have only seen previews for Mistress, even though I was on set one day for filming, but I wasn’t too excited about the film. It looked a little stilted and dry, even though the book is a pretty amazing magical realism South Asian American novel. But I was feeling kind of irked that I didn’t LOVE Water, also. I mean, these are my people – sometimes literally, as Divakaruni is my paternal aunt – and I love movies, so why do SOME Asian American movies not float my boat? I found some of the performances in Water to be sub-par and the previews for Mistress don’t seem to capture the earth-shaking drama and magic that Divakaruni’s book brought to life. Is it because we can’t get funding to do it right? Obviously, Water suffered when Hindu fundamental protestors destroyed the set and messed up equipment, forcing Mehta to move to a location in Sri Lanka that just doesn’t capture the intensity of Varanasi’s burning ghats. But I would think, she would somehow incorporate this into the film in a meta-narrative kind of way. Perhaps I would have gotten more into it if she had pulled some Lars Von Trier-type shit and shown us her hand, instead of trying to make it so realistic. And I heard that Chadha and Mayeda-Berges cut out one of the storylines in Mistress of Spices about a battered woman and turned a Native American character into the very white McDermott. I know, films need to be tight and you can’t have as many people as in a novel – but I have a feeling the movie might be lacking some fire. Anyway, stay tuned for more conversations in Hyphen about whether or not Asian American (or Canadian or British) films are failing.