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Randeep Ramesh in New Delhi [ Guardian Unlimited]

Lisa Ray and John Abraham star in Water, directed by Deepa Mehta.

A controversial Oscar-nominated Indian picture has finally been released in the country in which the script is set – seven years after a horde of Hindu fundamentalists forced the director to shoot the film in Sri Lanka.

Deepa Mehta’s Water is set in the ferment of pre-independence India and examines the social exclusion of Hindu widows, who are shunned by society after the loss of their husbands.

Hindu fundamentalists in 2000 decided that the movie’s plot and its depiction of the appalling conditions experienced by a child-widow on the burning ghats (pyres) of the river Ganges were an insult to the country’s dominant religion.

A mob destroyed the film set and burned Ms Mehta’s effigy, and the director only managed to get five minutes of reel in the can.

Ms Mehta, speaking to the Guardian at a low-key film preview today, said that the movie was not a “challenge to anyone or any society but a story”.

“I had submitted my script to the ministry [of information and broadcasting] in India for approval. It came back fine and the minister from a Hindu nationalist government said it was fine. Then I went to pre-production work and found a howling mob of 15,000 at the set, saying the script was anti-Hindu. We had to give up the movie in India after that.”

Eventually, the film was shot in neighbouring Sri Lanka with an Indian cast speaking predominately in Hindi, the language of India’s northern cowbelt. Ms Mehta is a Canadian citizen and Water ended up as that country’s official entry to the Oscars.

Shown in more than 50 countries, Water has gone on to become one of the most successful Indian language films of last year, grossing $6m in the US alone.

Subash K Jha, one of India’s top film critics, said today “What do you say about a film that hits you hard where it hurts the most; so hard that it takes your breath away? [Water can] restructure the way we, the audience, look at the motion-picture experience.”

The filmmaker is no stranger to controversy. Water completes a trilogy of movies by Ms Mehta. The first episode, Fire, which featured a lesbian love affair, was banned in India.

The next instalment, Earth, which centred on the bloody madness that seized Hindus and Muslims when the British retreated from the subcontinent, had sex scenes cut by Indian censors and was banned in Pakistan.

“I am a storyteller. I don’t set out to provoke reactions,” Ms Mehta said.

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