Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family, and Filmmaking

Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family, and Filmmaking

by Devyani Saltzman, Deepa Mehta


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781557047854
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2007
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.92(h) x 0.82(d)

About the Author

Devyani Saltzman received a degree in Human Sciences at Oxford University. She grew up on film and television sets, and was the recipient of the Young Professionals International Internship grant to work on a feature-length documentary in India. She works as a photojournalist and freelance writer and was profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle. Now 26 years old, she lives in Toronto, Canada, and is at work on her first novel.

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Newmarket Press

Copyright © 2006 Devyani Saltzman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55704-711-1

Chapter One



The train compartment smelled of incense and sour bodies. It was four in the morning as the Rajdhani Express sped eastward from New Delhi to Benares, the engine plowing through the darkened fields of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in north India. Inside the second-class compartment it was completely quiet except for the low hum of the wheels against the rails. But I was awake. It was December 27, 1999, the verge of the new millennium. From my upper berth, tucked into the sheets and coarse wool blanket provided by the Eastern Railways, I could just make out the glow of the moon through the tinted glass of the train window. The fields were immersed in a thick grey fog, typical of December in north India. At the other end of my overnight train journey, my mother was sleeping peacefully in a small hotel room in Benares-a peace that would be short-lived, although neither of us knew it at the time.

In four weeks my mother, international award-winning filmmaker Deepa Mehta, was going to begin shooting her fifth feature film, Water. She was born in India in 1950 and immigrated to Canada in 1973 after falling in love with my father, Paul Saltzman, a Canadian filmproducer and director. Together they started a small production company producing documentaries, television series and, eventually, feature films. She was thirty-eight when she directed her first movie.

I was their only child, a half-Hindu, half-Jewish daughter, born during a snowstorm in Canada. They raised me between Canada and India, where we visited my maternal grandparents every year in their house in New Delhi. Dressed in small Indian lehengas and kurtas, I was fed food by my Nani, my grandmother, with her soft hands. My first words were in Hindi. But when I was eleven years old, soon after my mother directed her first film, my parents divorced. It happened at the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France.

My mother's first film had been accepted into the Critics Week section of the festival. The whole family, including my maternal grandparents, went to Cannes to celebrate. The movie was about the unlikely relationship between two Canadian immigrants, an old Jewish man and his young Indian caregiver. It was received with praise and given a standing ovation, launching her career. But below the thin gauze of celebrity and success that was quickly beginning to envelop us, my parents' marriage of eighteen years was crumbling.

It ended on a warm spring evening after a screening, in the small apartment we had rented overlooking the Riviera. I was trying to do math homework, but sat frozen at the oval dining room table as their last fight raged. My grandparents sat on the couch, dumbfounded. And then my parents asked me to choose whom I was going to live with. The fringe of the red-and-white-striped awning on our little balcony moved gently back and forth in the breeze. I remember that, and the sound of my Nani crying as I walked down the narrow French staircase and out of our rented apartment, holding my dad's hand.

My choice haunted me every day afterward. My dad and I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on a seawall overlooking the Mediterranean. He bought me an ice-cream cone, the first thing I asked for after he told me they would divorce, and we sat side by side, contemplating our futures in silence.

As an eleven-year-old with a child's instincts, it seemed only natural to choose him over my mother. I felt safe with him, while my mother's pain and anger sometimes scared me. The court decreed I could choose to live with whom I wished, and I spent the following eight years visiting my mother sporadically. Our time together was painful, and always haunted by my choice.

The train whistle blew, piercing the silence of the compartment. I sat up on the edge of the berth and dangled my legs over the side in darkness. The whistle faded and the compartment rocked back into comfortable silence, save for the quiet snores of the man on the opposite berth. 1 had just turned nineteen, and was taking a year off between high school and university. I was confused about the future and about myself. A deep uncertainty was holding me down. When my mother invited me to make a film with her in India for three months, I accepted, despite the painful memories between us.

I hadn't been to India for years, and the last time I had travelled there was with my father. We avoided New Delhi, where my grandparents lived, and when they tried to call me, my dad put down the receiver. In the pain after the divorce my father had wrapped me up in our own world in our home in Toronto, angrily pushing away any contact I may have had with my maternal grandparents. Since the divorce, my relationship with India had been slowly left to die, like a withered plant, untended and forgotten. Meanwhile, my mother's relationship with India grew, and she soon returned to the land of her birth through the medium of film, turning her attention to the position of women in Indian society.

In 1996 my mother wrote and directed her third feature film, Fire. It told the story of two middle-class Delhi sisters-in-law who find love in each other and turn away from their oppressive arranged marriages. The film was explosive in India, a country that has no word for "lesbian." It put my mother on the map as an international, and controversial, filmmaker. Movie theatres screening Fire in Bombay and Delhi were attacked by angry protesters who felt the film misrepresented Indian culture. They shouted that lesbianism didn't exist in India, burned the film poster, and broke down the theatre doors. She followed Fire with Earth, in 1998, based on the novel by Bapsi Sidhwa about the violent partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

Water was the final film in what would come to be known as the Elements Trilogy. Set in the holy city of Benares in 1938, the film follows the lives of an almost invisible group of women in Indian society-Hindu widows. Women whose religion prescribed that they atone for their husbands' death by living as ascetics, wearing only white, the colour of mourning, shaving their heads to renounce vanity, and living in ashrams, or spiritual refuges. Hindu widows practised a different form of wifely devotion from the more widely known sati, in which a woman would throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, burning herself to death. The Manusmriti, one of the sacred Hindu texts, explains that in life a woman is half her husband and therefore, in the event of his death, she is half-dead. The practice of ascetic widowhood still exists today.

My mother had given me the script to read in Toronto. I read all of her work before anyone else, despite the difficulties between us. The script was beautiful, set against the backdrop of India's struggle for independence from the British. It follows the lives of three Hindu widows living in an ashram: Shakuntala, a middle-aged woman hardened by her fate; Kalyani, a beautiful twenty-year-old, prostituted out to wealthy clients as one of the only means by which the ashram can earn an income; and Chuyia, a feisty child-widow of eight. Child marriage was a common practice in India and still exists in parts of the country. A young girl would be betrothed to an older man, sometimes twenty or even thirty years her senior, and join him in his household upon reaching puberty. Daughters were a financial burden to their families, and quickly off-loaded through marriage. On Chuyia's arrival at the ashram, Shakuntala and Kalyani are inspired to find freedom within the social constraints imposed upon them and to at last attain moksha-self-liberation.

The sky was still a deep blue as the train pulled into Benares Station. Passengers had begun to awaken and gather their luggage, descending from the sleeping berths to brush their teeth in the small metal basins between train carriages. The three months of filming would be the longest time my mother and I would have spent together in eight years.

I stepped onto the platform among a sea of sleeping travellers. The cold hit suddenly after the warmth of the compartment, I remembered that north Indian winters could be bitterly cold, enough to see one's breath in the dust-filled air. Men and women lay curled up on the narrow platform, waiting for their trains. The women wore saris, or salwaar kameez, while the men wore pants and shirts. Their babies were wrapped in blankets and shawls and placed carefully between their sleeping bodies. It was five in the morning, and the first signs of dawn were still an hour away. The film production car assigned to pick me up wouldn't arrive until six a.m.

The last of the Rajdhani's passengers exited the station, and I was left amid the dark mass of sleeping bodies. I felt uncomfortable in the darkness, edgy and alone. In an effort to blend in, I tried to hide my combat pants under my shawl. It was useless, since I was dragging an oversized lack Wolfskin backpack with a Canadian flag sewn onto it. I found a place to sit on a cold concrete bench, and waited for the sun to rise.

The only light on the platform came from a small Indian chai stall a hundred metres away. I lifted my backpack and made my way past the sleeping families toward the glow of a single kerosene lamp. A small boy, with a red knit hat pulled low over his ears, was sitting on a stool behind a single gas burner, watching his stainless-steel kettle boil. Steam rose toward the station roof, fogging the narrow pane of glass that served as a barrier between customers and the flame. A pile of handmade clay cups were stacked loosely next to it. I asked for tea in broken Hindi. The words sounded awkward and unfamiliar as they left my mouth. He stared at me, waited a moment, and then reached for a cup. Picking up the kettle, he poured milky-sweet masala chai-a mixture of black tea, spices, and sugar-into the waiting container.

I sat down on the bench and cradled the warm clay between my hands. The station clock read five-thirty. I periodically glanced at it and searched the sky for streaks of light.

Water was written at the kitchen table in my mother's little Victorian house in Toronto. On the nights I would sleep over, I would wake up in the morning and come downstairs to find her sitting at the table with a cup of Earl Grey tea, a pack of Rothman cigarettes, and a spiral-bound Hilroy notebook. She had often been there since six in the morning, writing.

I wondered what it would be like to spend time with her again. If we could forget the pain in our time together, if something could change in the process of making a film. British director John Boorman said filmmaking was the act of converting "money into light." I hoped it would be more than that for us.

The first signs of life began to stir on the platform. Families were folding their blankets and the boy at the chai stall was now busy with customers. I looked at the sky. It was a pale blue. The station clock read five to six. Comforted by the sounds of morning, I walked toward the station exit as the day began to brighten.

A white Ambassador car was parked opposite the main gate of Benares Station. Ambassadors, manufactured in India, have the curves of a voluptuous woman and the suspension of a bullock cart. The fog had already begun to burn off in the heat, leaving the morning warm and slightly damp. Standing at the bottom of the station steps, among a throng of relatives, taxi drivers, and porters, was my mother. Her black hair fell below her shoulders, blending perfectly with her dark sweater. She wore small round sunglasses, and her face was darker than I remembered. Smiling, she motioned me toward the waiting car. The driver of the Ambassador tried to place my oversized backpack into the trunk, but it wouldn't fit. I helped him put it in the front seat. My mother waited patiently beside the open back door. When we hugged, I could smell her Diorissimmo perfume and was surprised by its comforting familiarity.

As I got into the back seat I realized there was someone else in the car. My mother introduced me to her assistant, Vikram. He was tall and lanky with warm, intelligent eyes. His black baseball cap was pushed back from his forehead, and he wore a single silver earring with a small blue bead suspended from it on his left ear. He was twenty-four and came from Bombay. The three of us sat squished in the back seat, with Vikram in the middle, as the Ambassador bounced along dusty rural roads toward Benares.

I looked out the streaked window at the pale yellow light falling on the flat expanse of mustard fields. Families were starting their day by pulling out charpoys, cots made of hemp and wood, so older relatives could sit and warm themselves in the winter sun. My mother sat silently, looking out the opposite window.

As I looked out over the fields I remembered the shape of the city, built like a crescent moon along a broad curve in the Ganges River. I had been in Benares for a brief visit a few years earlier and had fallen in love with it. One of my cousins in Delhi told me that she hated Benares. It was a dirty city with overcrowded streets, excessive traffic, and pollution. "You either hate it or love it, no in-betweens," she said. But I liked a city that demanded some form of commitment.

The Ganges, Gangca-ma, or Mother Ganges to Hindus, is the holiest river in India. And Benares is one of India's holiest cities, where many Hindus cremate their dead and immerse the ashes in the river. The Ganges flows through the high passes of the Himalayas to the tropical delta of the Bay of Bengal, carrying in its currents the sins of-all those whose remains were placed in it.

The banks of the river are lined with ghats, hundreds of red sandstone steps running the length of the crescent moon and descending into the river. Each section of steps has its own name and corresponding maze of narrow galis (pronounced gullies), or laneways, that radiate back from the river into the centre of town. Maybe the word gali came from the Hindi word gala, or throat.

There was Assi Ghat on the south end of the city; Manikarnika Ghat, in the centre; and Raj Ghat at the north end near the train station. Each step is worn from centuries of pilgrims descending to the Ganges for morning prayers. While the devout purified themselves in the water, dhobiwallahs, washer-men and women, stood knee-deep in the river, beating the city's laundry against the steps-the mundane and holy existing in perfect harmony. It is an ancient city with many incarnations, each with its own name. Benares is what the British called it. Recently it had been officially restored to its original Hindi form, Varanasi. But in its oldest incarnation it was known as Kashi-the City of Light.

The Ambassador started moving away from the rural roads, bypassing the ghats and knot of galis at the centre of town, toward Benares's cantonment. Dusty roads broadened into tree-lined boulevards, shaded from the sun by leafy gulmhur trees. The cantonment, or cantt, on the northwestern fringes of the city, three kilometres from the river, was the residential and administrative centre for the British during colonial rule until independence in 1947, a world away from the lives of the Raj's Indian subjects.

The cantt housed a handful of medium-size hotels, a number of private houses, and a small office that the production had rented for the duration of filming. The Ambassador pulled up to the Hotel Clarks Varanasi. A circular driveway curved up to the five-storey white building. Although it had just been built, whitewashed pillars and its location in the cantt gave it a faintly colonial air. The Ambassador came to a stop in front of large twin glass doors. I noticed that Vikram had hardly spoken during the drive to the hotel. He seemed thoughtful. David Hamilton, the producer of Water and my stepfather, stood waiting for us in the white-marble lobby.

David came into my life two years after the divorce, when I was thirteen. It was Christmas in Toronto, cold and grey. My mother was living in a development of pale pink townhouses just below Casa Loma, Canada's only castle. The grey carpets and walls of her house were accented with scant Indian furnishings, giving it an air of transience. The darkness pushed up against the windows and white flurries melted as soon as they collided with the glass. David arrived with a big square box wrapped tightly in clear plastic. He had bought a train set for me for Christmas. I refused to play with it.


Excerpted from SHOOTING WATER by DEVYANI SALTZMAN Copyright © 2006 by Devyani Saltzman. Excerpted by permission.
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