2006Director: Deepa Mehta
Cast: John Abraham, Lisa Ray, Sarala
o a modern Western audience, the message of Water may seem simplistic and overbearing. The conclusion of a trilogy that began with Fire and Earth, the film tells the story of Indian widows in the early twentieth century. Although no longer burnt on the funeral pyre alongside their husbands, these women are forced to lead secluded lives as social pariahs. Obviously, the audience soon realizes, women deserve better treatment. As the movie offers proof upon proof of this fact and the characters gleefully whisper about a groundbreaking new teacher by the name of Gandhi, Water appears to navigate the morally complex depths of second-grade race-relation skits.
However, writer/director Deepa Mehta offers something more substantial than Crash for bereaved women. For starters, her film attracted genuine controversy—religious fundamentalists prevented film production in India, and forced a move to Sri Lanka. And although the movie clings to its moral position (widowed women deserve real lives) without flinching, its depiction of humanity is decidedly more confusing and life-like. Adopting various perspectives, Water makes intelligent criticisms of time-honored traditions while still challenging the sympathies of the art-house crowd.
Widowed at the age of eight, Chuyia (played moderately well by Sarala) moves to a house of widows, where she is expected to lead a monotonous life until her dying day. Being a small child of some insolence, Chuyia rejects this repressive life. When the girl runs giddily through the streets (a wholly inappropriate activity for widows), the camera sweeps playfully and the upbeat music swells. Over-familiar tactics seen in thousands of other movies, indeed, but the simplicity makes an irrevocable point: Chuyia’s perspective shouldn’t be difficult to understand. For the child, life is easily categorized into black and white. Her older guardians are either evil or good; her situation is unjust. Life really is that simple. To the film’s credit, Chuyia does not represent an angelic martyr. Slightly spoiled and of average intelligence, the girl is a mildly likable human who has been fucked over royally. Chuyia’s story functions as a direct appeal to natural law; images of a young child being shorn say it all.
The romance between Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and her wealthy suitor Narayana (John Abraham) illustrate the hypocrisies and ironies of widowed life. Kalyani, markedly different from her fellow widows, has beautifully flowing hair and a vivacious yet modest personality. Narayana is an intellectual bent on promoting radically liberal notions of equality. Obviously, the two mesh fairly picturesquely, and their childish relationship, in typical Bollywood fashion, is pure cheese. Amidst the joyous dancing on rainy streets, though, an unpleasant truth begins to emerge. Forced to prostitute herself to survive, Kalyani hides her past from Narayana, who is far too busy self-righteously mocking his old-fashioned mother to notice. The flimsy romance may irritate cynical viewers, but Water’s true point lies in the abrupt puncturing of ideals. Denied the cinematic pomposity of courtship, the ramifications of genuine social change are not so easily swept aside.
In the character of Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), the film finds its most poignant and troubling moments. A devout Hindi, Shakuntala embraces the institutions that repress her. Where the dilemmas of Chuyia and Kalyani strike on a gut level, forcing the audience into heavy-handed empathy, Shakuntala forces us to consider the situation from a conservative perspective. When one’s conscience clashes with one’s faith, where can one turn? Although American audiences may be hard-pressed to identify with a society like the one depicted here, Shakuntala’s quandary eschews the easy judgment we can pass on Chuyia and Kalyani.
While Mehta’s film is certainly more than a polemic against religious systems, it’s nonetheless too easy to process. The penultimate finale may draw tears, but the message drowns in a moralistic well of cheap emotion. Considering the continuing oppression of modern widows (not to mention the controversy surrounding the film’s production), Water should offer something more than a digestible sermon. By placing her heroines in naive vantage points, illustrating the corrupt nature of the “liberal” side, and identifying with the devoutly religious, Mehta takes several small steps toward genuine complexity. The lives of women who have been affected by these beliefs, no doubt, are impossible to wrap into a tidy little message.
Water is playing in selected theaters across the country now.