Because DesiLit Magazine in its 2nd issue has not only reproduced a paragraph thrice of my review of Water, the editing of the original text (see below) also does not satisfy. But, sigh, that is a complaint freelancers the world over have.
FILM REVIEW: WATER
A palette of lotus greens and dusk blues lights up the frames of Deepa Mehta’s widely acclaimed Water. There is a town by the river, tranquil and green. The river is the town’s artery and shapes the life of its dwellers. It is revered. A group of widows lives out their lives by the river, in piety, penury and hopelessness. The camera silently captures the dramas and inconsequence of their lives.
The case of Hindu widows and widow remarriage has been taken up time and again in Indian literature since the late 19th century, particularly by Bengali writers influenced by social reform movements. Mehta’s last film in the trilogy with Fire and Earth is not, in that sense, new. It did not deserve the controversy it raked.
What Water does manage to do is to make vivid our knowledge of the world the widows lived in. The set of their house – spare, grey, closed – is a visual masterstroke. It has been used to stunning effect too, especially in the scene where the widows play holi.
The actors are all sincere and competent. With her thick ankled, round dimpled cuteness and a natural aptitude for acting, little Sarala impresses as a seven year old by turns watchful and mischievous, precocious and generous. It is heartbreaking to watch her accept her fate at one point. Still, it does seem as if the script is placing too much burden on Chuyia’s character, to be the symbol of unending goodness and hope in the film. The film would have been richer if it had lingered awhile on the dark heart of Chuyia.
Chuyia’s ally and counterpart in play and goodness, Kalyani, is played by the glowing Lisa Ray. She, along with the other widows, make compelling characters. From the tenaciously devoted and industrious Shakuntala played by Seema Biswas; to the larger than life and villainous Madhumati played by Manorama; to the doddering-at-death’s-door widow who lusts after laddoos, gulabjamuns and rasagullas day and night – each one is an unforgettable role, enhanced by good acting. John Abraham, however, does not ring true as a classically educated idealist who can spout Byron and Meghdoot with equal ease. He doesn’t look 'Gandhian' enough. It’s a pleasure to see Waheeda Rehman, as always, even in her garishly dressed cameo.
Sri Lanka gives us a perfectly acceptable Varanasi circa 1938. We see one section of the society responding ardently to the call of Gandhi and dreaming of freedom, while another is all too happy with the colonial rulers, their punctuality and Shakespeare. This conflict was during this period rippling through many parts of India. In the film, it is represented by Narayan (John Abraham) and his buddy (Vinay Pathak), and its glib treatment makes for its weakest moments. Gandhi is invoked almost as a stock phrase, and expected to stand in for everything that was changing in the socio-political landscape of the country. The script makes him out as an answer to all ills, giving the story that faint fairy tale whiff. The addlebrained-ness of Munnabhai was more credible. The spread of political ideas through a people is a complex process, and should have been handled better since it is such an important subtext of the film.
Water’s rather unnecessary moralistic tail can perhaps be traced to 2000, when hordes from VHP and RSS set fire to the sets of the film in Varanasi. No doubt, Hindu widows continue to be ostracized, thrown out of houses, and discriminated against in places. Many widows still live in Vrindavan and Varanasi in horrific conditions. But quoting, at the end of the film, the number of widows present in India as per the 2001 census seems to be slightly manipulative. This statistic seems to want the audience to draw a slightly misleading parallel between all the widowed women in India in 2001, and the life of the widows depicted in the film. Water tells a simple enough story, and it should have been left alone as that.
The dialogs, translated into Hindi by Anurag Kashyap, are rather stilted. The songs and the background music, scored by A.R. Rahman and Mychael Danna respectively, are lovely and add to the film’s sensuousness. Sukhwinder Singh’s lyrics are as idyllic as they come.
Despite its flaws, Mehta’s film serves as an important reminder of how religion can be misused to perpetuate injustices against the powerless in the guise of devoutness and self sacrifice. Kudos to her for asking questions that are disturbing for many, such as whether to choose religion over moral obligation, or vice versa.