Dir/scr.Deepa Mehta. Can. 2005. 114mins.
As intelligent as it isravishing, Deepa Mehta's Water is amoving portrayal of impossible love and possible hope. Fronted by an equally ravishingcombination of Bollywood stars Lisa Ray and John Abraham and cloaked in ahistorical drama set within Indian's widow caste, it tells the story of a youngwidow who falls in love with a man so far beyond her station he might as wellbe a god.
But it would be simplisticto categorise the film as a love story, or for that matter, a tragedy. Full ofsentiment but not at all sentimental, it is an uncompromising and complexcondemnation of the dehumanisation of women by religion. Indeed, the film containstwo shocking revelations that propel the film beyond issues of plot into anelemental exploration of the human need for gods.
As the opening night galafor their 30th festival, Toronto organisers could not have asked fora more distinguished film. And Fox Searchlight, which has the film for the US,could not have hoped for a better launch-pad; critical accolades are alreadyflowing in, priming the vital word-of-mouth that will help the film find anaudience.
That it is an entirelyCanadian film in terms of provenance but shot entirely in Hindi may hinder itsprospects for a foreign-language nomination, given that Canadian contenders aregenerally from French Canada. Then again, the film is strong enough andaccessible enough to warrant award season attention.
The final chapter in theIndo-Canadian filmmaker's Element trilogy, Water addresses the role and politics of religion in lives ofwomen, just as the previous films Fire(1996) considered sexuality and Earth (1998)considered nationalism.
Although the film is set in1938 during the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, it holds resonance for today. Indeed,the long gap between the second and third films was the result of the violentshutting down of Water's original2000 production by Hindu fundamentalists. This new production, entirely recast,was filmed in Sri Lanka under an assumed title in 2004.
The film opens with anexplanatory text: Under ancient Hindu scripture, when a woman marries a man,she becomes half of him so that when he dies, she is considered half-dead.(This practice persists in present-day India; hence, the fundamentalistoutrage, and the presence of a bodyguard at Mehta's side during the festival).
The story begins withfuneral posing as a marriage: Chuyia, (Sarala) an eight-year-old girl, is beingmarried to a dying man. By nightfall he is dead, his corpse burned on the bankof a holy river, and Chuyia is being prepared for her destiny. Shorn of herhair, she is placed in an ashram of fellow widows, there to spend the rest ofher days as a kind of human shrine to the dead man.
But the ashram is atravesty, ruled over by a massive gargoyle named Mahhumati (Manorma) whocontrols the lives of her fellow inmates like the mother superior of somehellish convent. Smoking ganja supplied by the local pimp, she farms out theyounger widows as prostitutes - until they have lost their allure asmoney-makers.
The ashram's main source ofincome is Kalyani (Ray), whose long hair advertises her role as the currentgolden goose. She has sublimated her personality so entirely that she canrationalise the disconnection between spiritual purity and corporeal infamy:"to live as the beautiful lotus flower untouched by the dirty water in which itresides". Smitten with the sprightly Chuyia, Kalyani takes her on an outing tothe river to wash her puppy of its fleas.
True to the title, water iseverywhere in the film, not just as metaphor but, as in this case, a plotdevice. At the river, Kalyani encounters Narayan (Abraham), a young Gandhianidealist, and the son of Brahmins, the highest order in the Indian castesystem. Studying law, thrilled by the social revolution presented by theMahatma's politics, he is eager to reject centuries-old cultural boundaries,especially that between him and the young widow. With Chuyia as the classicgo-between, their impossible relationship gradually blossoms.
But Mehta's purpose is notto follow the obvious path of romance but to explore the effect of therelationship on the other people in the story; to look into faces that are forthe first time seeing their world in a new and much harsher light.
Secondary characters,particularly the widows of the ashram, are allowed to breath and develop, andhence carry pivotal importance.
Shakuntala (Biswas, star of
David Hamilton Productions
Harold Greenberg Fund
Canadian Television Fund