In her debut book, Shooting Water, Canadian-Indian writer Devyani Saltzman chronicles the personal and political tumult she endured during the making of Water, the third film in the Indian trilogy, along with Earth and Fire, by her director mother Deepa Mehta. As her mother faced death threats from Hindu nationalists and the disappointment of shutting down filming, the young author found an uncommon opportunity to reconcile her mixed heritage and the emotional rupture left by Mehta’s divorce from Saltzman’s father, Canadian filmmaker David Saltzman. Recently, InTheFray Magazine’s Anju Mary Paul took part in a group interview with Saltzman.

The interviewer: Anju Mary Paul, InTheFray Travel Editor
The interviewee: Devyani Saltzman, author of Shooting Water

Do you think that the upheaval that took place in the 2000 shoot brought you two [Mehta and Saltzman] closer together?

Absolutely. I was excited by the three months of being with her, and those three months were cut short when the film was shut down. We were in Varanasi for a month and a half total. I was in the room answering the phone when she got death threats and staying with her and watching her go through something very painful. And I think it definitely brought us closer together because we had to support each other because all of a sudden, her country and a country where my grandparents live, a country I love, was turning against us. So it was a very violent time and it definitely made us stronger as mother and daughter. But it also cut short our reconnection. So I actually left for Canada and she went to West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, two different states, to try to make the film, though it didn’t work out. We left with these two minutes of silent footage that have never been seen, that are in our archives, with the original cast. And I was there on the day we shot those two minutes and a mob was outside chanting, “Water picture murdibad!” (Kill the Water picture!)

You acknowledge in the book that George Lucas supported the film. Were you disappointed that not many people in India itself spoke about your right to make the film?

There were a few artists, maybe not enough who supported it. The government at the time, which was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu right, was strong enough to drown that out. There were actually a lot of lay people who stood up in support in Calcutta when we were shut down. A whole number of sex workers, women, marched the streets of Calcutta with black cloths tied around their mouths, symbolic of the suppression of freedom of speech…. One of the big things for me was that the BBC, the Guardian, the American press all reported, “Controversial film shut down” in 1999. But nobody asked the deeper question: Why? So, for me, and with my writing background, this was the opportunity to go into depth about Hindu nationalism, and what happened with Fire, which was her first film in the trilogy. And there’s a great quote — do you know Pavan K. Varma? He’s a writer and member of the Indian Foreign Service and he once said, “All nations indulge in a bit of myth-making to bind their people together.” And I love that quote because I think Water was one of the casualties of maintaining this myth of a Hindu India, an India without widows, an India without this really dark side of its history — especially in terms of its women — and so I wanted that story out there.

Why do you think the state government cleared the script in the first place?

Because I think that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which any foreign production has to give their script to, genuinely loved it. I think it was really a ruckus started through the RSS and then it just snowballed…out of being just about the content of the script and into this idea of Hindu nationalism and purity and preserving the Ganges.

The writing is so lucid and so emotionally confessional. Did you keep a running diary or did you just recap how you felt?

A mixture of both. I’ve always been a diary writer so I did have a diary and research going back to press from the time — the Indian press and foreign press for 1999 — and photography and memory. I work through visual imagery so, when I wrote, I just tapped into that.

So it’s not like you went back every night and …

Not at all. I didn’t know I was going to write this book until 2004. The book that inspired me to be a non-fiction writer was Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with our Families. When I was 18, I worked at a photo agency in New York and I called up the New Yorker from a street corner and said, “Can I speak to Philip Gourevitch?” thinking that nothing would happen, but they put me through! So I said, “Hi, I’m a student. You don’t know me but I loved your book and I want to meet you.” And he met me for two hours and we had coffee on Columbus Avenue and we talked about writing. I’d thought he was a Ph.D. with a specialty in African politics. And he was like, “Yeah, I studied art but I dropped out, went to Cornell, worked as a waiter.” He showed me that you don’t have to have that credential to write. You just need your eyes and a pen.

What was the actual impetus to write this book?

It was two-pronged. For many years, I’d been feeling this is a great story and this film is finally out there. And emotionally, I talk about there being this existential weight, years of having to deal with being an only child and the guilt of divorce and it had to go somewhere. And so I just started writing. But I don’t know why that particular confluence of timing worked. A Canadian publisher said, we’re interested but you’ve only written 5,000 word articles. This is a 90,000 word book. Do three test chapters. And I did and they bought it. That’s just incredible luck but I had an editor who believed in me, so it kind of came together.

Given that your parents were filmmakers, were you ever tempted to go into movies?

If anything, it would be documentaries. But I’ve never wanted to be a filmmaker; I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

How do you think your mother transcended her anger through this film?

She basically went away and did Bollywood/Hollywood, and I think that was how she released her anger about the film, to go do this really irreverent comedy. And then she always said that she couldn’t make Water until she didn’t feel any anger because she didn’t want to taint the purity of the script. And Sri Lanka (where the film was eventually shot) gave us the distance, because it was a Buddhist-Sinhalese country and we were removed from India. It gave her a little more space to approach the film.
In terms of us, I had to deal with the guilt of a daughter choosing a father, and she had to deal with the guilt of why I chose him. As you know from reading the book, I never write about it in a linear fashion, it’s more of an emotional, literary experience. But it was realizing that I always loved her, that divorce tears people apart but, ultimately, underneath it, there’s a love, and it’s about finding that love again. And that’s the emotional journey. I learned to respect her, watching her as a director. And she learned to respect me as an adult, starting to work in photography and writing. So we just learned to find that love underneath the choices we all make.

You introduced yourself as half-Canadian, half-Indian. Is that really how you see yourself? Fifty-fifty?

Do you know Pico Iyer’s Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home? It sounds corny but I like the words “global soul” because I did grow up that way. My father’s Jewish. His parents — my grandparents — emigrated from the Ukraine, escaping the pogroms. My mother’s Punjabi. I was born in Toronto. I went to Oxford. I lived in England for three years. And I’d like to think of a world that’s borderless. People are always scared of their identity not being one or the other. I went through a little bit of that confusion but ultimately, it’s what made me a writer. That in-between space enriched me. So Canadian is the passport I carry, but I’m a global soul.

To read Anju Mary Paul’s review of Shooting Water, click here.

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