Can one ever pick up the pieces? For director Deepa Mehta and her daughter Devyani, the mother-daughter bond had unraveled many years ago when the 11-year-old opted to go with her Canadian father during a difficult divorce. At 19, she got the opportunity to re-connect with her mother when Mehta asked her to work with her on the shooting of Water in Benares. That turned into a 5-year odyssey after Hindu opponents refused to allow the movie, which deals with Hindu widows to be filmed in Benares. Mehta went through many tribulations to finally shoot the movie in great secrecy in Sri Lanka.
Now Devyani Saltzman has written Shooting Water: a Memoir of Second Chances, Family and Film-making, a book about those turbulent days and about starting over not only with Water, but also with their fragile relationship, which was marbled with pain and anger. In this beautifully written and heart-felt memoir, Devyani recounts the heartache of disbanding the sets after riots in Benares made it impossible to shoot there. Mehta’s effigy was burnt and she received death threats. In a way the mother daughter roles were reversed, with Devyani feeling protective of her mother. She says: “It was probably the first time in our lives that I was feeling that way toward her. All of a sudden, my mom was a target. I had never seen her in that position and maybe it also started us getting to know each other better. It was discovering the vulnerability on both sides.”
In the ensuing five years, Devyani got a degree from Oxford and then joined Mehta in Sri Lanka for the shooting of the movie. They created temples and ghats where none existed and worked with extras, who could not understand the language. Even one of the leads, 8-year-old Sarala, learnt Hindi phonetically and had to be directed through an interpreter.
The turbulent story has a happy ending: Water has been completed and shown to acclaim and the book has received strong reviews. Devyani Saltzman not only found her voice, but also the bonds with her mother. So is Water much more than a movie for her? “It is,” says Devyani. “It’s been a five year journey and now I’m moving on. Maybe it was all about growing up. The next phase will be about being an individual, a writer, someone on my own in the sense that the past with my family — we’ve faced it.”
As Deepa Mehta writes in the afterword to the book, “Sadly we can’t rewrite our lives as we do film scripts. But with awareness and a bit of luck, we can sometimes nudge them in a different direction. The rebirth of Water coincided with the rebirth of my relationship with Devyani.“