Lisa Ray as Kalyani
Seema Biswas as Shakuntala
John Abraham as Narayan
Manorama as Madhumati
Sarala as Chuyia
Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Sadananda
Waheeda Rehman as Bhagavati
Raghubir Yadav as Gulabi
Vinay Pathak as Rabindra
Rishma Malik as Snehalata
Directed by Deepa Mehta
Canadian-Indian auteur Deepa Mehta brings humor and romance to a story of unimaginable wretchedness, made bleaker still by the fact that widows sanctions linger in today’s India. By right the audience should fling itself on a pyre, but instead floats out in a ganja-eyed state of hope.
Mehta made a good call when she anointed an eight-year old as protagonist. Cherub-cheeked and vivacious, Chuyia is the exact opposite of what a widow should be. Throughout the story, this tension allows playful time-out from the enveloping misery, and gets us behind the girl’s destiny.
Newly arrived at the ashram, Chuyia has us in her little palms as she bites the bossy matriarch Madhumati (Manurama) and makes “that fat cow dance.” We’re not the only ones she charms. Thanks to her shenanigans, three widows will vicariously experience release and feel for her deluded quest to go home.
All three strike an uneasy truce with their fates. Clench-jawed Shakuntala gropes for virtue while facing off between her conscience and faith. Elder Patiraji escapes her days dreaming of the forbidden foods. And cashiered beauty Kalyani clings to her pure spirit “like a lotus, untouched by the filthy water in which it grows.” This all could have been bafflingly exotic, but instead it immerses us in a period mindscape.
“Water” takes place by the banks of the holy river Ganges, where Hindus go to purify their sins. Images of water as symbolic cleanser flow from reverent to ironic in this film of aptly shifting moods. There’s the current that transports the ashes of the dead and there’s the spill that reunites Kalyani and her star-crossed lover Narayan–but there’s also the river across which transsexual eunuch Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav) ferries Kalyani to men of means. Water gives life, and water takes life away.
Water can also stagnate. Echoing this theme, the film asks, What are the sins and virtues of tradition? “Disguised as religion, it’s just about money,” says reformer Narayan, protesting that Hindu widows are where they are because daughters are a financial drag on their families. A call to conscience and a Hindu poem help him make a case for the power of imagination as the first step to change. If this sounds like so much PBS wonderment, it’s too gracefully handled to pinch the narrative flow.
Like fluid, “Water”‘s characters take on the confines they’re put in. Take head widow Madhumati, for example. On one hand she hawks her charges, but she’s also out for survival. Does she truly believe the widows “would have burned in hell” if one of them bucked her lot? Maybe not. But Madhumati is a victim of the same constraints she enforces.
If the characters slip easy judgment, some of them also slide into one another’s roles. One is Shakuntala. Never mind that Chuyia is the main character, Shakuntala’s crisis of faith is the thematic focus of the film and it is Shakuntala who runs with the transformative action at the end. Chuyia’s story gets further sideswiped by Kalyani’s Radha & Krishna-inspired tryst with Narayan.
Here, as if to compensate us for the eyesores “Water” inflicts, Mehta overplays her romantic hand and serves up a gooey ladoo. Lucky thing this cultural gadfly doesn’t indulge her sweet tooth too often.
“Water” is the third film of Mehta’s Elements Trilogy. The first was “Fire,” a love affair between two women of arranged marriages that riled Hindu sensibilities and led to the smash up of the Bombay and Delhi cinemas that premiered it. Mehta became persona non grata in her native country for airing what Hindu cultural nationalists deemed unseemly images of India. Next came “Earth,” a story of ill-fated lovers in the communal violence surrounding the country’s 1947 partition into India and Pakistan. It screened without incident, with most Indians content to replay the fall of the Raj.
The saga of “Water”‘s production offers a dramatic arc of its own. It began when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)the ideological parent of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP)–claimed that the “anti-India” film was a Christian plot against the Hindu religion. Though the official censor had reviewed the script (a policy dating back to Louis Malle’s “Phantom India” shoot in 1968) and gave thumbs up, the vote-conscious local government would ultimately cave to fundamentalist pressures and claim public safety was at risk. Mehta, whose flammable reputation preceded her, was caught in the political crossfire amid rising cultural paranoia.
No one wishes on a director the hell Deepa Mehta caught from Hindu fundamentalism, including rioting, set burning and a staged suicide that shut down production in the holy city of Varanasi. But at least out of the ordeal she attained celluloid nirvana. In utter hush, the shoot remounted nearly five years later under a bogus title in neighboring Sri Lanka.
There, in a casting call, turned up Sarala, the non-actor who plays Chuyia. Sicced on emotions ranging from homesick denial to resignation and joy, she takes to this nuanced role with a natural expressiveness that makes it hard to grasp she learned her Hindi lines in phonetic Sinhalese. Canadian-Indian Ray is all grace and vulnerability as the shamed “angel,” and Bollywood heartthrob Abraham has charm to spare as her poetry-spouting love interest. Walking perfections, both, they’re ideally suited to each other–if less so for the picture’s time and place. Far more believable is Biswas, whose frozen finale as the past and future faces of India will long haunt any viewer who doesn’t have a statue for a heart.
If for some reason the saga doesn’t get you, the production values will. Six original songs from A.R. Rahman work their mystic power and make the “Water” soundtrack a must-have. They undoubtedly advance the narrative, though it would have been nice to know what the lyrics meant. Giles Nuttgens’s flowing camera enacts the film’s title and allows vibrancy without going the Chamber of Commerce route. Pacing seems almost pre-ordained, bringing a lyricism to the harshness that editor Colin Monie massaged in a kindred story of oppressed women in Catholic Ireland, “The Magdalene Sisters.” And hats off to production designer Dilip Mehta, who captures the feel of India’s temples and ghats and nails the right balance between nature vs cloister and vitality vs decrepitude.
From tumeric heads to twilight moons, the set will make you ache with its squalor and beauty. Just don’t expect its ascetics, ideologues and profiteers to burst into Bollywood-style singing or dancing anytime soon. They’re taken up with their personal paths to moksha.
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