At approximately 8:38 am yesterday, Toronto-based director Deepa Mehta (above) and producer David Hamilton learned that they were Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film for their work on Water. They learned of their nomination like most of us did, watching Salma Hayek announcing a list of names live on CNN.
“They announce the nominees in alphabetical order, and when they got to the fifth name without announcing Volver, we thought we were sunk,” says Hamilton. “Then they said, ‘From Canada,’ well we knew Volver wasn’t Canadian…”
The rest of day was a surreal whirl of interviews and congratulations. “But, in a very good way,” says Hamilton. However, he adds, “an enormous number of strange things have had to happen for us to get to this honour.”
Water is the third film in Hamilton and Mehta’s “elemental” trilogy (including Fire and Earth). Set in India in 1938, the film depicts the trials of three Hindu widows—the religious Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), the tragic Kalyani (Toronto-born Lisa Ray, pictured below), and 8-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) who, according to tradition are shunned as bad luck and forbidden from remarrying. Their tribulations mirror India’s own emergence from British rule and a strict social order.
But getting the story on screen was an epic struggle in itself—When Mehta began filming in India 2000, fundamentalist protestors brought production to a halt. “There were so many setbacks,” say Hamilton. “Riots. Death threats. They burned our sets. They blew up our jeeps.” The project was shelved. In the meantime Hamilton, Mehta and the many Torontonians in their production company worked together on the Genie-winning Hollywood/Bollywood. But four years later, filming in Sri Lanka with a new cast, Water was reborn.
So yesterday’s Oscar nod gave Hamilton and Mehta “a sense of vindication.” Hamilton adds that India of 2007 is different than in 2000. In fact, Indians from around the world are celebrating the film’s nomination as much as Canadians. “Isn’t that interesting? I’m told that Indian TV is showing footage of the riots along with the announcement, so they’re not covering it up. It’s good that everybody is celebrating.”
The second twist in the road to Oscar night is that the Hindi language film marks only the second time that Canada has selected a non-Francophone film for this category—the first was 2002’s Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), which was in Inuktitut. In fact, 2006 marks the first year in which foreign languages films were not required to be in an official or indigenous language of the country submitting the film. (Any language or combination of tongues is acceptable, as long as the principal language is not English.) “If they hadn’t changed the rule, we couldn’t have been put forward.”
“I’m proud of Canada and especially our colleagues in Quebec [who make up most of the body that selects Canada’s entry in the Foreign Language Film category],” says Hamilton. “It’s a great comment on the artistic community.” The filmmakers also feel that the nomination sends a message to aspiring auteurs of all backgrounds. “This city, this country is multicultural, and today is a clear manifestation of that.” He says that diversity is just a buzzword unless the community and the government lend their support.
Yesterday, Mehta and Hamilton continued to meet the press. But the duo isn’t getting too caught up in Oscar fever. When asked if Water will see a theatrical re-release, Hamilton says that probably. But considering that it’s out on DVD and has already appeared on Canadian TV, “It’s not going to make a lot of money, if that’s what you mean.”
With all the hard work on Water behind them, there’s not much left for Hamilton and Mehta to do but celebrate. “You can’t imagine how I felt,” says the seasoned producer. “I even cried a little.”
Photos by Devyani Saltzman, courtesy Mongrel Media.