BENARES, INDIA — Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta arrived in the Hindu holy city of Benares on Jan. 20, with the cast and crew for her latest effort in tow.
She had official clearance to film "Water," a story about the plight of Indian widows, and the final work in a trilogy that also includes the controversial yet critically acclaimed films "Fire" and "Earth."
But all she shot was one scene.
Last week, a million dollars poorer, weary, excoriated, and harassed, the subject of a month of inflammatory headlines across India, Ms. Mehta was essentially run out of Benares - escorted to the airport by 90 police, who had orders to arrest the director if she caused trouble.
The episode, pitting the "saffron forces" of Hindu radical groups against an international film crew, offers a revealing look at India's troubled and often complex teeterings between future and past, secular and religious, and civil and uncivil.
Some Indians see Mehta's experience prefiguring a new intolerance or extremism where right-wing thugs and Hindu fundamentalists boldly dictate terms from the street.
For others, including some liberal voices, Mehta is a symbol of insensitive foreigners trampling on sacred soil, and assuming Western standards of artistic freedom. India, with its colonial past, is still suspicious of too quickly joining the modern world, they say. Last week the same Hindu forces that ejected Mehta proclaimed Valentines Day an alien concept "that corrupts our youth" and threatened shops that sell heart-themed candies and cards.
For weeks, so much smoke surrounded "Water" in the New Delhi media that it was impossible to know what was going on. Lurid stories of city blocks burning, mass protests, Western conspiracies, and a script full of prostitutes and blasphemy appeared daily in the English-language press, and more powerfully in the vernacular media.
Interviews in this 5,000-year-old northern Indian city brought some clarity: The trouble started when a distorted version of Mehta's script was fed to the press, perhaps by a disgruntled business associate. Then, a small group of extremists - who were never arrested - staged a series of semi-violent acts and a slander campaign against the film. This prompted local officials, who stood to benefit politically from the controversy, to suspend the shoot.
"India has started evolving a new concept of 'cultural terrorism' and a vulgar intolerance that uses violence as its means of authority," says Yogindra Narayan Sharma, a local columnist in Benares. "The larger question is whether in two or five years, our entire system will reflect a cultural terrorism we have never had for 50 years. Today it is three or four small groups. Tomorrow it may be 10 or 12."
"Mehta showed a lack of sensitivity to local culture. As an artist you have to be concerned about boundaries," counters writer Pankaj Mishra, author of a new novel set in Benares, or Varanasi as the city is also known. "She came with an international crew. They spread a lot of money around. In a poor country like India, that can cause resentment."
In recent days, Mehta has been offered protection by the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, and will resume production in that central Indian state. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee issued a statement Thursday about the importance of free expression - well after Mehta left, critics point out. Mr. Vajpayee's ruling party is linked to some of the right-wing groups allegedly involved in the unrest.
No stranger to controversy
The director's work has a history of contention in India. Her 1998 film, "Fire," featured two women in arranged marriages, who are ignored by their husbands, fall in love. It was shut down for a week when Hindu religious activists in Bombay ransacked theaters in protest.
The subject matter in "Water," a 1930s-era tale of the widows of Varanasi, is no less controversial. The widows, of whom there are still 33 million in India, have for 500 years come to special holy cities to chant praise for Lord Krishna, a leading Hindu deity, and to live out their lives as best they can.
By Hindu custom, they are expected not to remarry or return to their own families. Given the practice of child brides, some widows are as young as 10 or 12.
"In the early part of the century, about half the widows here ended up as prostitutes, about a quarter were concubines for wealthy Brahmans [the highest Hindu caste], and a quarter remained pure for God," says Amitabh Bhattacharya, a Sanskrit scholar and a Brahman. "But still it is hard to see Beneras through Western eyes."
In "Water," a young widow and a follower of Mohandas Gandhi fall in love. He does not know that she has been forced to work as a prostitute, and she does not want to tell him - a storyline that ends tragically.
Some media reports spoke of a far greater breach of social etiquette - claiming the relationship was between a Brahman widow and a "Dom Raja," a lower-caste person responsible for overseeing the ritual burning of bodies on ghats, the steps leading down to the holy Ganges river. No such relationship ever existed in the film, according to producer David Hamilton, who adds, "I have never seen so much falsity perpetrated by any media as I have seen here."
Still, a firestorm ensued. Mehta went back to the Information and Broadcast Ministry in New Delhi for a second clearance, which she got. And she changed five controversial words in the script, though not required to do so.
But back in Benares, the local head of the right-wing Hindu Vishnu Parashad (VHP), Ashok Singhal, declared the film would be made "over my dead body.... We don't care what the government says, we care about what the people of Varanasi say." The film crew continued to face attacks from radical groups, including some no one had ever heard of before.
At one point, two dozen extremists stormed down to the ghats, destroying a table saw and a $600 changing-room partition. One report on national television suggested an entire set was destroyed, while others spoke of flames throughout a city block.
The district magistrate of Varanasi, Alok Kumar, suggested Mehta submit her script to a local "panel of experts." She agreed. Of the two people who showed up, one was the Mahant of Sankat Morchan, considered one of the holiest and most respected Hindu leaders. After reviewing the script for several hours, the Mahant reportedly said "I would like to apologize on Varanasi's behalf, you have been done a great injustice," according to Dilip Mehta, the filmmaker's brother, who attended the meeting.
As the crew prepared again to shoot, the district magistrate called Mr. Hamilton and told him 10,000 people were massing on the streets to protest. Hamilton sent drivers and extras to the scene, but found the streets clear. As filming began, another message from the magistrate said a young man was ready to commit suicide in protest. As it turned out, the man was well known for similar attempts. This time, after a "practice" suicide leap into the Ganges before news photographers, he was immediately rescued.
Enough is enough
Finally, after a silent protest by the cast and crew, local officials issued a command to stop the film based on a threat to "law and order." Officially the stoppage was for two weeks, but by this time Hamilton and Mehta were ready to give up the effort in Benares.
In the Lanka central market area, Ram Ji Rai, a leader of the anti-"Water" effort, says that any negative portrayal of widows was an affront to the Hindu faith. "The widow is a humble member of the family, and should not be defiled."
But actress Nandita Das, who plays the young widow, says the cast and crew are more determined than ever to make the film. "After what has happened, "Water" represents more than just a film. If it does not get made, that is a defeat not just for us, but for freedom of expression - and a victory for lies, games, and politics."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society