Passages from India

Two Hindi-language films explore India's political and social traditions -- but only one is that nation's official Oscar entry.

In an unusual twist, two very different Indian films will be competing for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' top honor in the foreign-language category -- but only one is India's official entry. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's "Rang De Basanti," a sweeping tale about modern-day students and their dawning political awareness, is representing India, while Deepa Mehta's "Water," which centers on the plight of a child forced to live in an ashram, is being submitted by Canada, where its director now resides.

In the past, the Academy only allowed a country to submit a film in one of its national languages; this year, that rule has been waived, paving the way for Canada to submit Fox Searchlight's Hindi-language "Water."

Both films present an India with deep political and social flaws, but the two features have something else in common as well: Each faced its own arduous struggle to make it to the screen, with "Basanti" running afoul of the government with its assassination plot line and depiction of military technology and "Water" calling into question societal conventions that relegate untold numbers of women to lives of abject poverty.

Not that Mehra set out to make a contemporary film -- his original screenplay for the project, which still dealt with armed revolution in India, was set entirely in the 1920s. "Once that was finished, I was very excited and did a test with some young students in Bombay and Delhi, and I realized nobody identified with the idea at all," he says. "Nobody identified with the concept of sacrifice, with the concept of patriotism. It was as if the film was outdated."

After spending nearly two years researching, writing and revising the script, that discovery was "pretty depressing," Mehra says. "But I was hellbent on making the film, so I went back to the drawing board."

To give "Basanti" a more modern sensibility, Mehra decided to center the story around a young British filmmaker who goes to New Delhi to recruit actors for a docudrama about India's resistance to the British Empire. As the story unfolds, though, the performers grow increasingly dissatisfied with political corruption and hatch a plot to assassinate a government minister.

Even with the revised script, it took Mehra more than two years to raise the $6 million-$7 million necessary to finance the project. "Nobody wanted to make it, even with the changes," he says. "The grammar of Indian film is extremely opposite to this movie: India is going through a phase of musicals, and this is a complete departure from that."

Mehra did manage to secure funding, however, after a well-known actor, Aamir Khan, signed on to play one of the lead roles. But the director knew that he'd never be able to get the government to sign off on the project, given its controversial elements: In addition to the assassination, "Basanti" also includes footage of military warplanes, though they were added digitally in postproduction in order to avoid having to obtain official clearances during the shoot.

So, Mehra and his team shot the film without the proper approvals, knowing that they would need to screen the finished product for the government's censor board, the Central Board of Film Certification, before it could be released. When that time came, the Board "said the film could only be released subject to approval by the (Ministry of Defense)," Mehra says. "So, we took it to the defense ministry, and their committee saw the film, and they had reservations, serious ones."

The committee told Mehra he could have his release certificate only if he made changes, including having the doomed politico come from somewhere other than the Ministry of Defense, but Mehra balked, insisting that the screenplay had been based on factual research alleging that faulty warplanes had resulted in the deaths of 76 real-life pilots. "I said, 'Thank you, but we are not going to change a single frame,'" Mehra says.

Next, Mehra screened "Basanti" for the defense minister himself, an event that turned into a bit of a media circus, with 40 reporters clamoring outside the screening room. "When I entered the screening hall, the defense minister came, and along with him came the chief of the army, the chief of the navy and the chief of the air force," Mehra marvels. "Only the president was missing! The theater was full of men in uniform."

Remarkably, the minister gave the movie a tentative go-ahead. "He said, 'Son, that's a lovely movie you made. My job is to defend the country, not to censor movies.'"

With a final approval from the air chief marshal, "Basanti" had its release -- and has gone on to become the second-highest-grossing Indian feature of the past decade. Mehra is stoic about the difficulties he went through and the problems of corruption in India that his film addresses. "India seems to be a very ancient country," he says. "But it is not. It is only 57 years old -- before that, it was just fragments. (Corruption) is a way of life, but now the government is taking action."

Mehta, too, had to contend with the murky depths of government bureaucracy in order to make "Water," but she arguably met with more profound resistance from conservative factions than did Mehra. A native of India, Mehta had moved to Canada in the 1970s, and as a foreign-based director wishing to film inside the country, she was required to submit her script to India's Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. "They go through it with an extremely fine-toothed comb to ensure that there is nothing derogatory to India or Indians," Mehta explains.

The ministry approved the screenplay, which, while it is a period piece set in 1938, still offers a candid examination of the lives of widows sent to reside in ashrams. Mehta says she was inspired to write the script after returning to India in the late 1990s to shoot an episode of the TV series "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" in the holy city of Varanasi.

"I grew up in India and went to school there," Mehta says, "but I never knew about the institutionalization of widows until I went to Varanasi. Then I met a widow who was about 80 years old, and I got to know her. She (asked me to) help her get to where she lived -- in an ashram -- and I did. I had never seen anything like that. It was dismal. The whole Indian theory of karma -- that life is a cycle, and you just can't get out of it -- you can really see it there.

"They get up very early in the morning -- even in January, which in northern India is freezing -- and go to the river and bathe, and they all sing hymns before having anything to eat," Mehta continues. "Then they get a handful of rice and lentils as payment for singing the hymns. After that, some of them go off to beg. They are completely dependent on charity. At night, they go to sleep on the floor, and if they are lucky, they might have a blanket."

Mehta then spent four months researching and spending time in ashrams, writing the script for "Water," the third installment of her trilogy, which also includes 1997's "Fire" and 1999's "Earth," and set about raising the CAN $1.2 million ($1 million) to make the film. Production proved more complicated than she could have possibly imagined, however. Mehta's crew spent several weeks preparing sets and locations in late 1999 and early 2000, only to have an angry mob of 12,000 people storm the location on the first day of shooting, outraged about the story's "anti-Hindu" content.

"My effigy was being burned," Mehta recalls. "We were getting death threats. The producers would get phone calls saying they would rape and kill all the women on the set."

Complicating matters further, Mehta discovered that a right-wing political party was supporting the mob. She flew to New Delhi to meet with a representative who told her that "widows are like goddesses, and your script questions the life that they lead, and nobody should have the right to question that."

Rival government officials from different parts of the country offered to host the production, but watching oneself being burned in effigy can have a curious effect on the creative process, Mehta admits: "I was so angry and bewildered and felt such a sense of being betrayed, that if I did the film then, I would have imposed my anger on a script that did not need my anger. I thought it would have twisted it."

So, on Feb. 4, 2000, "Everything stopped," Mehta says. "We lost all our money. We weren't insured. The actresses had all shaved their heads, but there was nothing we could do. All of us were heartbroken."

Five years passed before Mehta stepped in front of the cameras to shoot "Water" again. "It took five years for that anger to dissipate," she says. "I did other films in between (including 2002's 'Bollywood/Hollywood' and the 2003 production 'The Republic of Love'). Then one day, the anger was gone, and I went to (producer David Hamilton) and said, 'OK, let's see if we can do it.'"

Two months after that conversation, with a whole new cast and a larger budget, Mehta was shooting in Sri Lanka. "It went extremely smoothly," she says. "It was a wonderful experience."

Ironically, the publicity drawn by her initial shoot helped turn the final film into a success, but it hasn't been embraced by all Indians. Even "Basanti's" Mehra is guarded about it. "It is a period film, not a contemporary film," he says. "That is not representing India today in any manner. It is made for a Western psyche. I am not taking anything away from the movie cinematically, but it does not represent India in any way today."

Others might disagree, not least Mehta herself. Today, she retains her anger about the "politics of fundamentalism" that impeded her. But, like Mehra, she expresses a certain optimism about the way India has changed. "It is getting better," she says. "There is absolutely no question about it. The government is taking action, and more than that, there is a huge awareness among the people and in the media. Television has become independent; newspapers have become independent. So, it is all out in the open, and (change) is irreversible."