There are two parallel yet interconnected threads in this book. The first is the making of Water, the third film in the “Elements” trilogy by Indian-born director Deepa Mehta. The movie deals with the Hindu religion’s treatment of widows circa 1930. According to a sacred Hindu text, since in life a woman is half her husband (in essence, one-half of the unit of husband and wife), upon the event of his death, the woman is considered half-dead. What this means to the widow is that she is required to shun all ostentation and lead an austere life. Mehta’s cinematic treatment of Hindu widowhood caused a tremendous amount of hostility in 1999 when she began filming Water in the North Indian town of Varanasi. India was in the throes of “Hindutva,” a harkening back to its illustrious religious past spurred on by the ruling party who were elected on that very platform.
The second, and the more personal and compelling, thread is the relationship between the author, then a nineteen-year-old, and her mother, Deepa Mehta. Mehta immigrated to Canada in 1973 and married a Canadian filmmaker. When the marriage broke down, the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter was asked to choose which parent to live with. Devyani Saltzman, the daughter, chose her father. This choice caused a bitter rift between mother and daughter, a wound that festered for many years after. Mehta invited her daughter to work as the third assistant cameraman on Water, ostensibly to help her daughter gain field experience, but mainly to get closer to her.
Saltzman adroitly juxtaposes the vicissitudes of making the film with the need for closure that both daughter and mother appear to be seeking. When violent protests necessitate the abandonment of the movie, Saltzman feels her mother’s pain. When Saltzman falls in unrequited love with Vikram, an assistant on the film, her mother does not offer her the unequivocal support that the daughter expects.
When no amount of political maneuvering can help the filmmaker pursue filming the movie in India, the project is put on hiatus. In the meantime, Saltzman enrolls at Oxford where she is caught in the throes of loneliness and her sense of identity, being born of Indian-Canadian parents. The healing process starts when Saltzman undergoes a nervous breakdown and her parents stay with her to see her through the crisis. When Mehta resumes filming Water in Sri Lanka (under the name of Full Moon to thwart religious zealots), it gives both mother and daughter the chance to repair their relationship.
There is a palpable poignancy when Saltzman writes about her difficult relationship with the driven Mehta. The immigrant child’s identity crisis, accentuated in this instance by her parents’ break up, and its accompanying sense of isolation are captured in telling detail by both Saltzman’s writing style and her adroit placement of incidents to bring home her point. This is a deeply engrossing book of growing up and coming to terms with the past.