During the filming of Water, director Deepa Mehta received nightly threats in India.
“She would get phone calls saying she would be raped and killed if we kept filming,” said Water’s producer David Hamilton.
“And this went on for three weeks, till we finally left.”
Screened last week during the Available Light Film Festival, Water played to a sold-out house, forcing festival organizers to offer an additional screening on the weekend.
Set in 1938 colonial India the film begins when eight-year-old Chuyia is widowed.
In keeping with Hindu traditions, she is sent to a home were widows live in penitence for the remainder of their lives.
The harsh portrait of female oppression is tempered by Chuyia’s youthful, lively spirit, prompting other widows to question their faith and future.
“Water exposes human experience that most of us don’t give any thought to,” said festival producer Andy Connors of the Yukon Film Society.
“We see the film society’s place as an exhibition organization to show films about real life and real people in other parts of the world and their experiences, whether that’s pain and suffering or joy — all the range of human experience.
“These films are a window into other peoples’ lives.”
Water is the third film in Mehta’s elemental trilogy, following Fire and Earth.
She managed to shoot her first two films in India, filming the second, before the first premiered.
It was only after Hindu fundamentalists realized the damaging political subject matter of Mehta’s films that she met with Indian resistance shooting Water.
“There were riots in the cities, with several thousand protestors,” said Hamilton.
“They burnt our set, blew up one of our jeeps and burnt effigies of Deepa in every major city in the country.”
But the crew persisted.
The government of India supposedly supported the filming, and supplied the crew with armed guards who escorted them to the set.
“But the government is actually in collusion with the fundamentalists,” said Hamilton.
Eventually police stormed the set and shut down the production, under direction from the district magistrate, “in the interest of public safety.”
Someone had attempted suicide to protest the filming and if they had died the government feared it would not be able to protect the crew against the public outrage that would have followed, said Hamilton.
It later turned out the suicide attempt was by a professional who was paid to pull off suicide stunts, he said.
But there was no way to prove this.
The crew was told they could try again in a month, but they had already been there nine weeks and couldn’t afford to wait.
They returned to Toronto discouraged.
“It wasn’t until six months later that Deepa and I even talked about working again,” said Hamilton.
“Then we decided to do something fun.”
The result was Bollywood/Hollywood, a romantic comedy about a young Indian man in love with a Caucasian pop star.
Refreshed and rejuvenated, Hamilton and Mehta were ready to tackle Water again, but decided to shoot in Sri Lanka this time, five years after its first film crew was chased out of India.
They ended up building an elaborate 800-metre set in Sri Lanka to replicate India’s ghats — long stone steps that descend into the country’s holy rivers.
Many of the parts were cast locally, including the role of Chuyia.
“We had lots of young girls auditioning; however, unless they really want to do it, child actors won’t put enough into the role,” said Hamilton.
“But this one little girl travelled all the way from a remote rural community, and came with her parents, her aunt and uncle, her siblings and her school principal, and she just had it.”
Hamilton asked her to read for one of the most difficult scenes — when Chuyia is left at the widows’ home by her father.
“She just started weeping,” said Hamilton.
“And when (the director) said, ‘cut,’ she stopped instantly — it was amazing.”
Everything happens by accident in life, to a certain extent, he said.
Hamilton met Mehta through a mutual friend and production designer in Toronto.
Soon after, he agreed to produce Fire, his first experience in film production.
“When I met Deepa something lit up, because of the time I had already spent in India,” said Hamilton.
After Harvard business school, he received a traveling fellowship and explored India by motor home.
“I wrote to all these North American motor home companies and pitched an advertising campaign — ‘Your motor home can go anywhere,’” he said.
“And I would take pictures of it beside the Taj Mahal, in Venice, by Big Ben — all over.”
One company bit, and Hamilton shipped his new RV from New York to Rotterdam, Netherlands.
He took his time driving it to India, stopping in Pakistan, Turkey, Kuwait, Iraq, and many other countries along the way.
He spent more than a year in India.
“Something happened there,” he said.
“Just like being brought up in Whitehorse, something is planted and stays the rest of your life.”
Hamilton’s father was in the air force and between the ages of seven and 10, Hamilton lived in Whitehorse with his family.
“I was at the age when everything was exciting and I loved dogs and fishing and the woods and hockey,” he said.
“I cried when I had to leave. I remember driving out of Whitehorse on our last day and the light was shining through the back window of the car.
“My brother and I were in the back seat and tears were streaming down my face. I pleaded with my parents to leave me in Whitehorse with my dog.”
Now, many years later, Hamilton managed to make it back to the territory.
Originally he had two weeks to relax in Thailand, after wrapping up his most recent project. But when he was invited to attend the Available Light Film Festival in Whitehorse, he didn’t hesitate.
“Something inside said, ‘This is not a choice,’” he said.
“And I instantly felt an affinity coming back here.
“I expected this — and I would have been disappointed if this feeling didn’t happen.”
Hamilton returned to Toronto last weekend to attend to four projects he currently has on the go.