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Water
Director: Deepa Mehta
Screenplay: Deepa Mehta
Stars: Sarala (Chuyia), Lisa Ray (Kalyani), John Abraham (Narayan), Seema Biswas (Shakuntala), Kulbhushan Kharbanda (Sadananda), Waheeda Rehman (Bhagavati), Raghuvir Yadav (Gulabi), Vinay Pathak (Rabindra), Rishma Malik (Snehalata), Vidula Javalgekar (Auntie), Manorama (Madhumati)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2005
Country: Canada / India
Water DVD
Water Deepa Mehta’s Water is the third and final film in her thematic trilogy about life in India, each of which is titled after one of the four elements. The other two films are Fire (1996), which is about two married women who engage in a lesbian affair, and Earth (1998), which is about the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Water is no less controversial in the topic it tackles--the treatment of widows under traditional Hindu law--and Mehta had become such a hated filmmaker in conservative Hindu religious circles that the sets for Water in Uttar Pradesh were destroyed and she had to move the production to Sri Lanka.

Despite being a relatively gentle film (not to mention beautifully shot by Giles Nuttgens, who also shot the other films in the trilogy), it’s not hard to see why some would find Water so threatening. Mehta makes the argument that the 2,000-year-old tradition of forcing Hindu widows to live in poverty and isolation has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with economics. That is, it’s not about faith or spirituality, but about saving money. As one character blatantly says near the end of the film, “One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.”

The story takes place in 1938, and the central character is an eight-year-old girl named Chuyia (Sarala) who is widowed in the film’s opening scenes despite not having remembered being married. Nevertheless, she is branded a widow for life and must leave her parents to live in an ashram with other widows, many of whom have been there since they were children and now are on the verge of death. Chuyia’s long hair is shaved off and she must only wear white so that everyone knows she is a widow and can steer clear of her, lest they be tainted by contact.

Mehta, who also wrote the screenplay, casts her narrative net far and wide, giving us different character views of what it meant to be a widow-pariah at the time. We meet Madhumati (Manorama), an enormous, threatening woman who runs the ashram and represents compromise at its worst. Then there is Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a much more sympathetic and thoughtful widow whose beliefs are challenged by her interactions with young Chuyia. Then there is Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow who represents what might become of Chuyia in a few years if she were to continue living in the ashram. Also widowed as a little girl, Kalyani is the only woman in the ashram to have long hair because Madhumati allows her to be pimped out to wealthy members of the gentry. While this would seem to be a sin above all sins for a widow to prostitute herself, Madhumati justifies it because the money is needed for the ashram to survive.

The winds of change arrive with Narayan (John Abraham), a young law student who has become a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and has the temerity to not only fall in love with Kalyani, but want to marry her. Narayan is the film’s moral voice--he stands for the kind of freedom against political intolerance garbed in religious tradition that Mehta finds so repulsive.

He also represents the possibility of goodness in men, which is otherwise lacking in the film. The tragic fate of the widows is contrasted starkly with the boorish attitude toward fidelity embodied in Narayan’s wealthy father: While the widows waste their lives away in forced poverty being “faithful” to someone long dead, men with living wives of flesh and blood guiltlessly engage with mistresses and prostitutes, even going so far as to suggest that it is a form of blessing.

In a way, Narayan is a bit of a conceit because he is so fundamentally good and fair, and it is not surprising that Mehta puts her beliefs in his mouth and supports them with the omnipresence of Gandhi, who appears in person late in the film. In Water, Gandhi’s importance lies less in his freeing the Indians from British colonialism than it does in his challenging of some of Hindu’s repressive tendencies. There is much talk about Gandhi throughout the film--his name is spoken with a combined reverence and excitement by those who love him and a sense of wariness by those who don’t want to lose the security of England’s presence--yet it is not all about political freedom. “He said the untouchables are children of god,” one person reports Gandhi having said, words that reverberate throughout the entire film.

Water DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio Hindi Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Deepa Mehta
  • “The Making of Water” featurette
  • Water: A Behind-the-Scenes Look” featurette
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    SRP$27.98
    Release DateAugust 29, 2006

    VIDEO AND AUDIO
    The anamorphic widescreen transfer of Water is absolutely gorgeous. The film’s cinematography is rich and detailed, although much of the film is limited to cooler shades of green, blue, and gray. The film’s opening shots, however, are like Impressionist paintings, and they look stunning. The film’s soundtrack is presented in an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix that makes great use of the surround tracks to create an ambient environment (it seems to rain a lot, and the effect is quite enveloping). The musical score, which is a combination of traditional Indian instruments and Western-style orchestrations, sounds lush and full.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    Writer/director Deepa Mehta has a calm, soothing voice, which casts something of a spell during her audio commentary. She talks about the filmmaking, but even more she discusses the social issues in the film, providing a great deal of cultural and sociological background that would otherwise be lost on those not familiar with Indian history and Hinduism. The disc also includes two featurettes. “The Making of Water” is a short, four-minute bit about the troubles faced by the film’s production when Hindu fundamentalists tried to shut it down; it includes an interview with Mehta and news footage of the controversy from Indian TV. “Water: A Behind-the-Scenes Look” is a longer affair. Running some 21 minutes, it covers all the major aspects of the film’s production, giving us video footage of the shooting of the film and interviews with Mehta and stars Lisa Ray, John Abraham, and Seema Biswas.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Fox Searchlight


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