Water (Canada/India, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Water, a meditative drama that evokes the movies of the great Satyajit Ray, brings Deepa Mehta's "Elemental Trilogy" to a close. (The previous two films were Fire and Earth.) A film that takes a long, hard look at the second-class status of widows in fundamentalist Hindu society, Water has been battered, protested, and banned by elements of Indian society for what it depicts. Like Kandahar and Moolaadé, Water explores the exploitation of women in some societies, and how difficult life can become for those who oppose custom.

There is a tradition within fundamentalist Hinduism that when a woman is widowed, she has three options: (1) to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, (2) to marry his brother (if he has one and it is permitted by the family), or (3) to live in poverty in a group home for widows. Although Water transpires in 1938, an endnote indicates that this practice has not been entirely abolished in India. Director Deepa Mehta's intention to address this situation from a critical perspective resulted in widespread protests that forced her to shut down filming in India during 2000. After a delay of more than three years, Water was subsequently made in Sri Lanka under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Chuyia (Sarala) is an eight-year-old widow sent to live in an ashram in the city of Varanasi when her husband dies. Chuyia is unhappy about being separated from her home and mother, but her high energy level provides a jolt to the staid, quiet surroundings of the womens' home. Within the walls of the ashram, Chuyia finds two allies: Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), who becomes a mother-figure, and the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who is like a big sister. Kalyani, the youngest (other than Chuyia) and most attractive of the widows, is being pimped to the men of a high caste across the Ganges by Madhumati (Manorama), the "ruler" of the ashram. When Kalyani falls in love with an idealistic Brahmin named Narayana (John Abraham), and he with her, their relationship becomes a battle in the war between traditionalism and Gandhi's modernism.

As one might expect, there is a lot of water in Water. It comes in the form of the Ganges river and the daily monsoon-like rains that drench the area. Traditionally, water is a symbol of purification, and it fulfills that role in this film. The women, after all, are in the ashram in search of cleansing. But it's also worth noting that in Greek mythology, the dead crossed the River Styx. Kalyani's prostitution takes her across the Ganges, transporting her from a place that claims to be a house of redemption to a place of lust and gluttony.

Taken as a whole, Water presents a damning view of this aspect of fundamental Hinduism. Since women often play subservient roles in fundamentalist religions, the treatment of the widows in Water should not come as a surprise. Although the film is told through Chuyia's eyes, this is Kalyani's story. Chuyia is rebellious, but she does not blaze a trail the way Kalyani does. It is the older girl, who has not yet shed her romantic dreams, who defies Madhumati - something no one else in the ashram has the courage to do.

The film is suffused with a sense of creeping modernism, as if the curtain of ignorance is slowly lifted. One character remarks that widows are kept in the ashrams more for economic reasons than for spiritual ones. (One less mouth to feed.) Another states that laws are being enacted which are designed to improve the lot of the widows. Most of the women in the ashram have learned to accept their situation with stoicism. But Kalyani and Chuyia are rebels, and their unwillingness to obey the rules causes others to question the status quo.

Despite being unable to film in India, Mehta has assembled an impressive cast. It includes Seema Biswas, best known for Bandit Queen, in the pivotal role of Shakuntala. The stunning Lisa Ray, a Bollywood exile, makes one of the most beautiful widows ever to grace the screen. Vidula Javalgekar gives a memorable turn as the infirm "Auntie," who craves sweets on her death bed. But the real find is Sarala, a Sri Lankan girl who memorized dialogue in a language she does not understand and delivers it with conviction.

Considering all she endured to get this film made, Mehta must consider it a labor of love - or at least a story she believes has to be told. Despite the historical setting, one could see this as a statement about those women who, even in today's world, remain oppressed as a result of antiquated cultural norms. Honest movies about this subject are often powerful because they depict a great injustice. Water is no exception. The film ends on a note of hope, but there are deep waters to wade through before getting to that point.

Water (Canada/India, 2005)

Director: Deepa Mehta
Cast: Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, Sarala, John Abraham, Manorama, Raghubir Yadav, Vidula Javalgekar
Screenplay: Deepa Mehta
Cinematography: Gilles Nuttgens
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2006-04-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Hindi
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1