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|July 13, 2001||
Deepa Mehta to sue writer Sunil Gangopadhyaya
Writer-film-maker Deepa Mehta and her producer David Hamilton plan to sue noted Bengali writer Sunil Gangopadhaya for defamation.
This move is in response to allegations that surfaced in India last year that the script of her incomplete film, Water, bore a strong resemblance to Gangopadhaya's book, Those Days.
Speaking at a public meeting in New York City, Mehta and Hamilton were befuddled why Gangopadhaya was trying to defame the film-maker. Hamilton says, "If we had wanted to adapt his book, we could have optioned the rights, just as we did with Bapsi Sidhwa's book (Cracking India, the basis of Mehta's last film 1947 - Earth)."
"I am a huge admirer of Those Days and of Sunil Gangopadhaya," she claims, with a smile, and adds, "when I visited Calcutta, Jyoti Basu asked me whom would I like to meet. I told him I wanted to see Mrinal Da (Sen) and Sunil Gangopadhaya."
Mehta was speaking at the India Center of Art & Culture (ICAC), a gallery that opened last year in Manhattan's Chelsea area.
The visit to New York was part of the lectures and programs ICAC has organised around its new photo exhibition, Woman/Goddess, curated by art critic Gayatri Sinha.
Mehta and Hamilton joined in a conversation to discuss the making of Fire, Earth and Water.
The high point of the evening was when Mehta showed rushes from the six hours they shot of Water before the project was shelved last year -- she and her crew were driven out of Varanasi by rightwing Hindus who claimed she was defaming Hinduism.
This was Mehta's first public appearance in New York since then. She admitted that it has been difficult for her to face large gatherings of people since the Water incident.
There was something clandestine about the screening that lasted barely a few minutes -- like an underground private showing of Doctor Zhivago in Soviet Union.
The harrowing, almost silent rough shots of a barber shaving the head of an eight-year-old widow left the audiences gasping.
"I hope there are no RSS supporters here," she said, as a remark to Mallika Dutt, a program coordinator at ICAC. That remark, although meant as a joke, is a sharp reminder of the status, image, labels and baggage Mehta now carries with her.
She is no longer just an award-winning film-maker of four feature films" Two critical and art house successes (Fire and Earth); one small independent film which showed up at a few film festivals (Sam And Me); and Camilla, which was panned by critics and made its way to video after a limited release.
Whether she likes it or not, Mehta is a celebrity -- over 200 people turned up to hear her speak on a hot muggy day in Manhattan, when traffic was messed up because of President George Bush's visit. She is an icon for progressive, left wing, gays and lesbians, and women's groups.
After all, she faced the wrath of RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and other groups that espouse the Hindutva ideology. And although partially defeated, she is still standing.
Mehta also explained her passion for writing and making films: "I think if I didn't, I would die. Every film I wrote and made had to do something with my life."
Fire was written at a time when Mehta was going through a troubled marriage with her Canadian husband (film-maker Paul Saltzman), as she admits, "I carried all those baggages of tradition, which stopped me from starting the divorce process or walking out. So I asked the question, 'Can we as women exist with dignity, without being defined by men?'
"Fire, therefore, was a film about the choices women have."
1947 - Earth came when she was wrestling with her national identity -- was she an Indian, an NRI or a Canadian? It did, however, help that she discovered Bapsi Sidhwa's book at a Seattle bookstore and decided to adapt it into a screenplay.
Two years ago, in an interview with this reporter, she raised those issues: "I feel very Indian. I don't feel Canadian at all. I think of Canada as an adoptive country has been very kind to me. But I feel very comfortable doing films that are set in India because I grew up there."
Water, she said, was conceived in the early 1990s when she befriended a young widow on the ghats of Varanasi, while shooting an episode of the television series, Young Indiana Jones. She said it was difficult for her to talk about Water and her troubles with the Hindu groups.
Hamilton lost his cool when a member of the audience asked the oft-repeated: Why does Mehta make controversial and sensational films? "I have seen Deepa before and during the making of her films. At no time does she say, 'Why don't I make a controversial film'?"
Hamilton did assert that Water will be made one day. Mehta remarked: "Aapke mooh mein ghee aur shakkar!"
Right now, however, Mehta is in the process of adapting By The Light Of My Father's Smile, a novel by Alice Walker, onto film.
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