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May 30th, 2006 (07:11 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

Water, the third of Deepa Mehta's elements series, is lyrical poetry used to describe the brutal realities of day-to-day life for Indian women in the period leading up to independence. As such, it takes on responsibility for detailing a lot: a complex community, the power dynamics of male-female relationships, and the take of ordinary Indians on Mohandas Gandhi's nascent movement. That’s a pretty tall order, and it's complicated by the death threats that Mehta has received from fundamentalists while battling to get her movies on the screen. But the effort pays off quite admirably.

Water centers on the lives of windows in an Indian city in the late 1930s. "Widows" is a little more politically charged that you might think: men are allowed to marry children, as young as six and seven (and the girls have no idea what’s happening), and wives are considered the properly of their husbands. If those husbands should die before their wives – and a husband with 30-40 years on his wife is likely to do just that – ownership is taken up, in his name, by the religious authorities. They in turn reinforce edicts declaring that widows (the unluckiest of the unlucky) can enter heaven only by remaining pure and true to their dead husbands. Chuyia, a newly widowed seven-year old, is brought to a "widow house" to be isolated from society, effectively robbing her of any sort of childhood and adulthood. Traditionally, there is no way to buck the system; this is the way it has been and the way it will always be, and there is no compassion for individual cases.

Chuyia makes friends with Kalyani, the second youngest widow in the house. Like Chuyia, she became a widow at an extremely young age – young enough that she can’t remember exactly when. She, however, is different from the other widows: she has her own bedroom, she alone is allowed to wear her hair long, she can even sneak a dog (considered back luck) into her room without too much of a fuss. In return, however, she acts as the house’s main means of support: at the receiving end of the "concern" that many of the local Brahmin show for the "plight" of the widows.

At the edges of this tradition, scratching to come in and upset the status quo, is a young lawyer named Narayana. Narayana is an enlightened Brahmin, but rather than following the traditions and position that his caste would allow, or the privileges and relative freedoms that aligning with the British would allow, he's become involved with Gandhi's nonviolence movement as a way for India to better itself and all its citizens – including the widows. When a chance meeting throws him, Chuyia, and Kalyani together, he easily translates his idealism into a growing attachment to the widow (Kalyani) who by all traditional rights should be completely off-limits to him.

It's been a while since I've seen a serious, well thought out, realistic feminist film. Since the word has been distorted away from its original meaning, most film feminism is bad or a joke. And it would have been simple for the writer/director to fall into a fairy-tale, Bollywoodish ending, where the modern man "rescues" the young widow from the wickedness of society and they, with his tolerant father and easily persuaded mother, live happily ever after. But Mehta travels a much more realistic route, one which shows that the upperclass are not always so liberal and tradition not so forgiving of transgressions, and which implies that the imperfect, incremental internal change of the nonviolence movement was likely the only way for real change. The message shouldn't be solely nonviolent tactics removed the British; those tactics should also implicitly attack ignorance at all levels of society. It's clear throughout the film that the tradition-bound society, even those would benefit the most from change, needs some convincing that Gandhi's message is positive change; part of Meehta’s story is that convincing is still needed today.

* * * * * * * * * *

The movie itself is beautifully shot. Although the locations are largely proscribed to the few places that the widows could go, the story isn't affected at all. The film would still be a visually astounding film even with no story. The colors come close to tactile experiences (especially in the wonderful Holi festival scene), the lighting is creative (when Kalyani and Naranaya meet, it is under the broad branches of a baobab tree, surrounded by clay lamps, with Kalyani holding one small lamp to illuminate her face and all the uncertainty in it). The story itself is told in a way so that anyone not familiar with the issues would still understand and empathize quite well. And the actors acquit themselves with only minor quibbles (although Naranaya was little else beyond idealistic).

All in all, a very good, thought-provoking movie. I’m now motivated to hunt down Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Earth (and hey – I own The Republic of Love and didn’t know it was the same director). Wish there was more of this caliber hitting the theaters right now.

Also found a link describing some of the troubles the production had while filming: http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/28/water.html


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: June 20th, 2006 12:14 am (UTC)
from your co-worker ;)

I have seen Water twice already. Loved it even more the 2nd time around. I'm originally from India so the sounds and cinematography were even more nostalgic for me. Music was by AR Rehman and was so serene. It was so tactile it was palpable. Deepa Mehta did a wonderful job exposing this travesty that went on during and before Gandhi's time...and apparently still happening today. I thought the characters of Madhumati (the grouchy mean matriarch of the widow house), Seema Biswas (Didi - which means older sister) and Chuyia acted the best. I was pleased that mainstream bollywood stars John Abraham and Lisa Ray. It's nice to see them play something so different for once. The 2nd time i watched the film, i noticed every instance that the element of water was shown and how Deepa tied it in with the movie. I think I could keep watching it to pick up more nuances (well if and when i have the time).Ha!

Unfortunately, women are still treated as lower class citizens in India. In the Sindhi language, an unmarried girl is called a "nyaari" which means "poor thing" because one day she'll have to leave her parents' home and go and serve her in-laws! My grandmother calls me that all the time! She does it with love and doesn't like to take any help from me because I am a "nyaari" but ofcourse I don't let that stop me. So, it's very subtle amongst the middle to upper classes with Indians but it still exists from the older generation. My grandmothers come from that era. Their generation did not call their husbands by their first names. They are happier when they find out a son is born instead of a duaghter. Both my grandmothers are widows and wear mostly only white - a sign of mourning and ascetism for Hindus. Things have definitely changed and thankfully we don't have any extreme stories like this movie in my family but if you watch the movie you see that some 30 mil widows are still treated like this in India. So it's still a big deal and it's a shame that this movie was banned in India. I so wish my relatives in India could have watch this in the theatre the way I did.

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