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Jewish Journal

Woman’s cathartic memoir focuses on Hobson’s Choice—mom or dad

by Naomi Pfefferman

November 16, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Devyani Saltzman sat frozen over her math homework as her parents screamed at each other one evening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992. Her mother, the Indian-born filmmaker Deepa Mehta, had come to Cannes to premiere her first feature, "Sam & Me," about the unlikely relationship between an elderly Jew and his Indian caregiver. Devyani's father, Canadian-Jewish producer Paul Saltzman, had joined her to celebrate.

Instead, their own relationship unraveled that evening in what was to be the last fight (and, essentially, the last day) of their marriage. When the argument subsided, they turned to 11-year-old Devyani and asked her to choose whom she wanted to live with. A few minutes later, the stunned girl left the rented French apartment, holding her father's hand.

"With a child's instincts, it felt only natural to choose him over my mother," the now 26-year-old author explains in "Shooting Water: A Memoir of Second Chances, Family and Filmmaking." "I felt safe with him, while my mother's pain and anger sometimes scared me. The court decreed I could choose to live with whom I wished, and I spent the following eight years visiting my mother sporadically. Our time together was painful and always haunted by my choice."

In "Shooting Water," Saltzman says her decision, in fact, haunted every aspect of her life. She recounts feeling torn between two people and two cultures, belonging nowhere; repressing her anxieties by burying herself in her studies, only to suffer a depressive breakdown at Oxford University; quarreling with her mother, who traveled extensively to make controversial, feminist films, and reconciling on the set of Mehta's 2006 film, "Water" (now Canada's Oscar submission).

The book also describes Saltzman's Ukrainian-Jewish bubbie, who became a Communist after Bolsheviks saved her from a pogrom, and how young Devyani celebrated both Passover and the Hindu New Year before her parents divorced. "Filmmaking was the common culture my parents raised me in, beyond being Jewish or Indian," the quietly intense author said in a phone interview from her Toronto apartment.

But after the divorce, she said, her mother remained bitter that she had decided to live with her father. When Saltzman had a problem, Mehta sometimes angrily suggested that she call her father, since she had chosen him. Or she seemed inaccessible while reading scripts or chain-smoking Rothman's cigarettes.

When Mehta asked her to work in the camera department on "Water" in 1999, Saltzman seized the opportunity.

"The three months of production would have been the most time we had spent together in eight years, and I viewed it as our second chance together," Saltzman said. That December, the then 19-year-old Saltzman arrived on location in Benares, India, a holy city on the Ganges River, where political strife helped bring her closer to her mother.

Hindu fundamentalists in Benares were already wary of Mehta. In 1996, extremists had attacked theaters showing her film, "Fire," about lesbian sisters-in-law trapped in oppressive, arranged marriages. They were equally suspicious that "Water" - about Hindu widows forced into poverty to atone for their spouses' deaths - might vilify their faith.

Saltzman helped ensure accuracy by visiting such widows. As her mother prepared to shoot on cremation grounds that descended into the Ganges, Saltzman descended a staircase leading to a widows' ashram in the cellar of a hotel. In the freezing, dust-filled room, she met elderly women who wore filthy saris and subsisted on one meager meal per day. She learned that even child-widows could be forced into such an existence (although child marriage is now illegal).

"I was shocked, but proud that my mother's film would help expose this way of life," Saltzman said.

Yet the production wasn't to be -- at least, in Benares. The government shut down the shoot after protesters rioted, burned her mother in effigy and telephoned with death threats. (When Saltzman once picked up the phone, a voice hissed that Mehta was a "whore" and that she had better leave town.)

The movie was put on hold for five years until Mehta received funding -- and permission -- to finish the project in Sri Lanka. Because of the fear of Hindu extremists in that country, the set's location remained secret, and the director had no guarantees she would be able to finish her film.

In Sri Lanka, Saltzman cared for Mehta when she fell ill and told her mother how proud she was of her socially conscious movie. By the end of the shoot, her mother had forgiven her for the choice she had made long ago at Cannes. The experience also gave Saltzman the idea for her first book, "Shooting Water." "But I didn't want to write just an Oprahesque, growing up, teary thing," she said. "I tried to express myself by balancing cinema and politics with the personal journey."

Even so, the memoir proved cathartic for both mother and daughter. "As I read her book, I alternately smile and feel perturbed," Mehta wrote in the memoir's afterward. "Perturbed by her pain -- because as parents we let her down; smile, because her honesty and courage made this redemption possible."

Devyani Saltzman will speak Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth David in Temple City.

Devyani Saltzman will speak Nov. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Beth David in Temple City, as part of the Jewish Book Festival presented by the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. For information, call (626) 287-9994 or (626) 332-0700. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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