Judge Daniel MacDonald says come on in, the water is warm.
For five years, extremist groups waged a campaign of death threats, arson, and riots to stop the production of Water. But the filmmakers were not to be silenced.
With Water, director Deepa Mehta has opened a window to a world most of us in the West know very little about, revealing India in the 1930s from an insider's perspective. The stunningly beautiful cinematography, employed with an emphasis on telling the story through images rather than words (especially helpful since the film is in Hindi), makes the movie a pleasure to watch and comprehend—it's only after the picture's over that the story's darkness really sinks in.
Facts of the Case
India, 1938: traditional Hindu teaching holds that a wife is one half her husband, and so when her husband dies, she becomes one half his corpse—and she is to live in a manner befitting this, eating one meal a day and living a life of self-denial ostracized from the rest of society. Suddenly a widow at eight years old, without even remembering her wedding, Chuyia's life is drastically changed—her long hair is shaved off, she's dressed in a plain white sari, and is dropped off by her father at an ashram, a communal home for widows, in Banaras. At first believing that her mother will come for her, Chuyia sees her new caretakers as ripe for torment; her precociousness is not always well received. But, with the reinforcement of the tyrannical Madhumati, who runs the ashram with strict adherence to tradition, she soon starts to realize the permanence of her situation.
While learning to cope with her newly-regimented life, Chuyia makes a new friend in Kalyani (Lisa Ray, Bollywood/Hollywood), a beautiful and rebellious widow with long hair, a forbidden puppy hidden from the others, and dreams of getting remarried one day. She might just get that chance, as the puppy's escape attempt leads to Chuyia and Kalyani meeting liberal-thinking Narayan, an intellectual young man striving to follow the teaching of inclusiveness intoned by Gandhi, who is traveling the country at the time, spreading his message over the radio. Kalyani and Narayan fall in love, despite his mother's protests and Madhumati's disapproval, and Chuyia's youthful energy starts to radiate throughout the group of widows. But can these women's fates be changed so easily?
After Earth and Fire, Water director Deepa Mehta has completed a trilogy of films commenting on traditional Indian values, making her less than popular with Hindu extremists. In fact, Mehta attempted to film this picture in India in 2000, but was driven out of the country under the threat of violence and a disinformation campaign discrediting the picture's intent—she is likely among a pretty rarefied group of directors who have ever been burned in effigy. After making the cathartically-light Bollywood/Hollywood, Mehta began production on Water once again, this time in Sri Lanka four years later.
She has made an important picture here, not Oscar-bait "important," but important in a more basic sense—Water tells a story of oppression that is shocking for how easily it is accepted. The characters are so resigned to their lot that it doesn't even occur to most that there is anything for them to rebel against—this attitude actually allows the viewer to get more deeply immersed in the lives of these women, as it's told not from an outsider's perspective, trying to affect social change, but from the point of view of believers, even if the belief system is what causes their strife. After the death of one character, another looks on the bright side: "God willing, she'll be reborn a man."
Both Chuyia and Kalyani's stories are very simple, using traditional structure to provide insight into a complex situation. Mehta doesn't try to tell the audience everything about the widows' life in the ashram all at once, but instead doles out exposition organically over the course of the movie, preventing the sense of being taught a history lesson.
The cast, as a whole, is very good, with all of the widows portrayed as unique characters with well defined personalities, no small feat given that they're all in the same white sari with the same haircut. Seema Biswas, as the proud and serious Shakuntala, is haunting in the film's final moments, and Manorma manages to give the character of Madhumati a surprising amount of humanity.
Chuyia, as realized by Sarala, is an adorable, mischievous little girl who I was glad to see portrayed realistically as an eight-year-old, rather than as "wise beyond her years." While she grows on the other widows as the movie progresses, she doesn't teach them any lessons or change their lifestyle in any meaningful way, and in fact, Mehta uses the audience's expectations of a happy resolution to boost the impact of the movie's harsh realities, following joyful and touching scenes with sometimes devastating acts. These are handled with a great deal of taste, but can be shocking nonetheless.
Lisa Ray is captivating, subtly revealing character with small gestures and looks, really helping to tell the story with minimal dialogue. Hindi is not her first language, but you wouldn't know it here. And John Abraham makes a strong impression with his relatively few scenes; although his style is less reserved than the rest of the cast, it is suitable for his character.
Giles Nuttgens' cinematography is key to the success of this presentation; the thoughtfully composed images grabbed me from the very first shot, and didn't let go. At times it looks like a Kodak demo reel, with richly saturated colors dancing across the Cinemascope-wide screen. In the audio commentary, Mehta discusses processes used to increase color saturation at times, especially in the "Festival of Color" sequence, which is jaw-droppingly beautiful to watch. This would be a great movie to try out your new plasma on. Similarly, Mychael Danna's music is really moving, capturing a sense of hope and potential that prevents the film from seeming dark or depressing. Water is a Canadian film, and Danna has been one of my country's great composers, scoring nearly all of Atom Egoyan's films; his work is always superb. Supplemented by Danna's music is a fine bit of sound design, subtly immersing the viewer in the movie's landscapes—the sound of Chuyia's head being shaved at the beginning of the movie really made me squirm.
The disc doesn't have a huge amount of special features, but they are definitely worth your time. The 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette provides some insight into Mehta's directorial style, and the struggle of bringing this story to the screen, intercut with scenes from the movie. There is a second, five-minute segment focussing strictly on the controversy Mehta faced during her first attempt to shoot the picture in India, and how she dealt with it. Mehtha's audio commentary reminded me of how Ridley Scott's often are, as she gives a constant stream of unfailingly interesting and pertinent tidbits about the movie's themes, the production design, the actors, etc. For example, she points out a symbol early in the film that looks like a backwards swastika, and tells how the Nazi symbol was created by inverting the Hindu sign for purity. Overall, her comments give the viewer a deeper understanding of the piece, all you can ask from an audio commentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I liked this film, I did feel at times that the storyline between
Kalyani and Narayan was a little too melodramatic, and seemed like it was from
Water tells of a practice not well known in the Western world with sensitivity and intelligence, and grabbed me from it's opening shot to its last. I recommend at least a rental—and give yourself plenty of time to discuss afterward.
I hereby find Water not guilty of deserving half the controversy its release generated.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary by Director Deepa Mehta
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