A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Deepa Mehta, 2007, India/Canada, 114mins, Hindi with subtitles
Cast: John Abraham, Sarala, Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas
After Fire (1996) and Earth (1998) comes Water, the long-delayed third film in Mehta’s “elemental trilogy”. Seven year old Chuya (Sarala) is a widow in thirties’ India, which – according to Hindu tradition – renders her an outcast, consigned to a widows’ commune where women beg or prostitute themselves to make ends meet. Her presence stirs other residents like Shakuntala (Biswas), a devout Hindu struggling to understand why her own religion considers a widow’s life worthless, and beautiful Kalyani (Ray), who risks everything for a chance at happiness with handsome, idealistic Narayan (Abraham). Ghandi’s influence is beginning to be felt on Indian politics, but is that enough to stop these women’s lives ending in tragedy?
Although it occasionally lapses into Bollywood melodrama, Water is a strident, provocative, moving drama about a subject many Hindu fundamentalists would prefer left alone. In 2000, Mehta received death threats and fundamentalist mobs burned down the films sets, shutting down the production. With the director confined to her hotel room under armed guard, an ad in Variety saw George Lucas declare his support (Mehta shot two episodes of Lucas’ Young Indiana Jones). Five years later, production resumed, this time in Sri Lanka, under a disguised title.
Through clever use of a child protagonist – kids can’t help but ask awkward questions – Mehta exposes a great, social injustice and delivers intriguing characters: the bloated matriarch who prostitutes younger widows, the toothless senior (a widow since childhood) still dreaming of delicious sweets served on her wedding day, and especially Shakuntala, whose spiritual crisis is movingly portrayed by Bandit Queen (1994) star, Biswas. Mehta’s films often feature characters pondering their place amidst a turbulent world. Even her Young Indy episodes revolved around philosophical debate.
Casting Abraham and Ray, actors celebrated more for their looks, might seem like a concession towards commercialism, but their performances embody Mehta’s clever, subversive use of the conventions of Indian storytelling. Narayan and Kalyani are less flesh and blood than elemental forces: idealistic fervour and fragile innocence. Their passive endurance might test a western audience’s patience, but earnest performances ensure the actors transcend being mere eye candy.
Water is a piecemeal film, made of little, revealing details instead of a tightly constructed plot. Mehta sometimes loses focus and things get a little slow. Save for a climactic appearance from Ghandi, historical events remain peripheral, alluded to by characters when it might have been more interesting to actually see Narayan politically involved. The score is mostly lovely, but A.R. Rehman’s overwrought songs feel more suited to Bollywood Dreams. Nevertheless, for a cinema long enslaved by conservative ideology, Water represents a bold step forward. Clearly that unnerves some people as much as it excites others.