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Troubled Water
Deepa Mehta makes terrible films -- but nobody has the right to stop her

February 10, 2000
Web posted at 6 a.m. Hong Kong time, 5 p.m. EST

So Deepa Mehta's in the wars again. The controversial director of films like Fire and Earth has long been a target for Hindu-extremist groups who accuse her of demeaning Indian culture. Two years ago, Fire was excoriated by Hindu fanatics because it dared to deal with lesbianism: some movie halls were vandalized by folks who believe there's something inherently un-Indian about homosexuality. Last week, a mob in the holy city of Varanasi smashed the set of her new film, Water. This time, they accuse the director of defaming their city and showing Hindu widows in poor light--the screenplay suggests some child widows in the 1930s were forced into prostitution.

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Women's-rights activists and Varanasi old-timers say Mehta's premise is historically accurate, but that cuts no ice with her opponents. And at the moment, it is they who have the upper hand. Taken aback by the fury of the mob, the government of Uttar Pradesh state has slapped a two-week ban on the shooting of the film in Varanasi. The chief minister has hinted Mehta and her crew may never be allowed to return.

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The groups opposed to Water are backed by legislators of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu-nationalist party that leads India's coalition government--and that rules Uttar Pradesh. In a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing, the BJP information and broadcasting minister in New Delhi had previously declared Water inoffensive. Now, a party spokesman said the ban was the result of Mehta's "irresponsible and insensitive approach." And Home Minister L.K. Advani weighed in with the advice that the film should be made "with the consensus of its producer and those who are objecting to its shooting."

For the record, I think Mehta is a hugely overrated director: Fire is among the worst films I have ever seen. The tale is interesting enough, but it is poorly told--the acting is stilted, editing jumpy and directing unimaginative. Earth, Mehta's take on Partition, is marginally better, but overlong and all too formulaic. So I have no great expectations of Water, and probably won't see it.

But the quality of Mehta's work is beside the point. Indian law doesn't prohibit mediocre movies. If it did, the country's huge film industry would be reduced to ruin. Mehta has a right to make her films. By failing to protect that right, the BJP governments in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have shown, yet again, that the party of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is unable (or unwilling) to rein in its lunatic fringe.

For years now, religious zealots have been chipping away at India's credentials as a champion of artistic freedom. They struck another blow last week in Varanasi, as two governments looked on. Never mind how that affected the country's image in the world, the real damage was done at home. When artists--even bad ones--are prevented from practicing their craft, all of society suffers.

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