An Interview with
Devyani Saltzman’s book Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family, and Filmmaking details the making of her mother, Deepa Mehta’s, third film in her “Elements” triology, entitled Water.
Interviewer Ram Subramanian: While the book is principally about the making of Deepa Mehta’s Water and the controversies surrounding its filming, this is a very personal book. There are passages that delve deep into your emotions – the relationship with your mother, the crush on Vikram, etc. How difficult was it to write about these emotions? Was it, in a sense, a catharsis?
Devyani Saltzman: When I sat down to write Shooting Water, I scribbled three words in my notebook ‘political, personal and cinematic’. I always wanted the memoir to balance the story of making Water with the politics of South Asia and my own emotional journey. In a sense, the emotional story is the backbone of the book. And it was definitely cathartic to write down my experience of divorce. It allowed me to deal with feelings I had neglected for a long time. There were moments while writing that the blank page stared back at me, and when I finally wrote down an emotional passage I was left with a strange feeling of both sadness as well as relief.
The haunting theme that runs through the book is the sense of betrayal that you feel because of having chosen to live with your father rather than your mother when your parents divorced when you were an 11-year-old, and the parallel feelings of rejection that your mother felt when you made your choice. Until that evening in the hotel room in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the two of you do not seem to have confronted these emotions directly. Once you did, there appears to have been closure for both of you. Why did this not happen earlier? Did you have to have that maturity (Oxford, the turbulent filming in India) before you could face that?
The issue of my ‘choice’ was so raw for both my mom and I, that although we tried to face it over the years it inevitably became too painful. By the time we arrived in Sri Lanka I was 24 years old and we had come through such an amazing journey together in the 5 year struggle to make the film that it definitely contributed to our ability to communicate about the divorce. I had grown, and matured, through university and living on my own, and my mom had grown through her work. Sometimes we need distance and time to see our own history in perspective. And I believe Sri Lanka not only gave us the space to focus on filmmaking, but was also neutral ground for my mother and I to focus on our relationship.
The sense of personal identity, or the lack of it, appears in several instances in the book – the walk with the actress Lisa Ray, eating alone in high school in Toronto, for instance. When, if at all, did you come to terms with your identity as a child of an Indian mother and a Canadian father (of Ukrainian origin) and living in Canada?
I think my sense of comfort with my background has grown with time. I felt more dislocated shuttling between two homes as a child of divorce than between two cultures and religions. We always celebrated Passover and Diwali, Hanukkah and Holi, so I was raised to respect all religions as different ways of connecting with God. Now I feel that my dual heritage has only enriched my life. I think it’s made me a writer. I like having a perspective that is informed beyond one cultural lens, and yet is in between worlds.
Your mother’s “Elements” trilogy (Fire, Earth, and Water) are all controversial. Fire dealt with the topic of lesbianism, a subject that is ignored in India and considered taboo to be spoken about. Earth dealt with the wrenching partition of India, and Water with how the Hindu religion deals with widowhood. What drives Deepa Mehta toward these subjects? Do you see yourself in your mother’s gravitation toward these topics?
You’d have to ask her about her own creative inspiration, but what I know, mostly from conversations on the road, is that she is primarily attracted to a story that interests her – whether it’s Radha and Sita’s love in Fire, or Shakuntala facing her own conscience in Water. She always rebukes any comment that she first and foremost pursues a controversial subject manner. She inhabits the stories she loves. Yet, they do push people to think and have a large degree of social awareness. And that’s what I love in writing and hope to continue to pursue. Her sense of humanity and politics has definitely rubbed off.
When your stepfather, David, told you that you are the stills photographer for Water, what was your initial reaction? Was there ambivalence – a sense of elation at doing what you wanted to do, and, at the same time, a sense of dread at the responsibility bestowed on you? How did it eventually come out?
I was really excited by the prospect of doing the stills for Water. I love photography and have always pursued it in both work and travel. But the stills for a film – all of the images that represent it in press, reviews and the film poster were a big responsibility, and I didn’t want to screw it up. But when I accepted I realized that I had not only accepted a job, but embraced another stage in growing up. I believed in myself more than ever before, and that allowed me to take on a new challenge.
How did your mother react to the book when it was written?
She was very proud of me.
Water bowed to rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival. Was there a sense of fulfillment for both you and your mother, considering the difficult journey that the movie took?
Water has been a very important journey in all of our lives. The successful completion of the film really did coincide with the rebirth of our relationship as mother and daughter. I was so happy to stand next to her on the stage at the film’s premiere in Toronto. It was a long road, but it has ended in joy allowing us to move forward as two adults pursuing their own dreams in film and writing, and, more importantly, as a loving mother and daughter.
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 is based in Toronto, Canada.
Deepa Mehta is the acclaimed director of Camilla, Fire,
Earth, Bollywood Hollywood, and The Republic of Love. Born in India, she currently resides with her husband, producer David Hamilton, in Canada.
Contributing reviewer Ram Subramanian interviewed
Devyani Saltzman, author of Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family, and Filmmaking (see accompanying review), about
her book via email for curledup.com. Ram Subramanian/2006.