Deepa Mehta has been working on this movie for almost seven years. There were troubles on the set, Indian religious organizations threatened to close the set and pull funding. So the production stopped and moved to Sri Lanka in order to finish this project. Usually when one hears about “problems on the set”, the assumption is that the movie is horrible, and the producers are trying to salvage it. This is a different story – the movie is controversial, and also important – it needed time and a lot of love to be made. Now that I’ve seen it, I know it was worth the wait. The film is beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time.
Indian films are maturing. Just a few years ago you could not tell them apart from one another – extensive dance numbers, catchy music, colourful characters, the universal battle of good vs. evil (only nobody’s really in any danger at any time). But in 2003 Bollywood/Hollywood came out – mocking and revering all these cliches, telling a modern, smart story, and giving us three-dimensional characters. This film was also directed by Deepa Mehta (whose earlier films Fire and Earth have strived to go deeper into culture, and draw out better stories). Deepa has put together her strongest, most memorable film to date – it’s accessible, powerful and works on many levels.
Before I get to the details, I just have to note that this film not only goes beyond Bollywood cliches, it establishes and then evolves some of Hollywood cliches as well, showing that it’s possible to deal with archetypes, and tell a familiar story, and still be original, and fresh. Typical, I guess, that it takes an outsider to show us (allegedly, the pros of moviemaking) that you can recycle plot or characters without losing your audience, without boring them to death. And that’s precisely why Indian movie business can churn out hundreds of films a year (they have been having tough couple of years), and still bring in people to the theaters in droves. Whereas this summer has shown that movie overkill doesn’t work on American audiences – when people see commercials for 2-3 big new movies every week, they’re not even going to try to catch any of them (let alone the “big ones”), they’ll turn to other sources of entertainment. But enough ranting – I got a great film to describe.
First of all, I was absolutely stunned by the cinematography of Water. Every shot is a painting – whether it’s a long panoramic view of the river that passes the outskirts of the city; or whether it’s a series of shots of a dog running through the market, and a little girl trying to keep up. One such run through the city streets, and the entire world has been established, we can see beyond the next building, we can even smell the sweets sold in the corner store.
The film wastes no time establishing the main character – a seven-year-old girl who was married off at early childhood (probably at birth – a tradition). She is informed one evening that her husband has died and she is now a widow. She asks “a widow? for how long?” Long silence… The next morning her father brings her to a place where widows live out the rest of their lives – and young Chuyia never sees him again. All of this takes about five minutes, and the rest of the film tries to show what exactly is the life of a widow in 1930s India (and in most cases, to this day); how they exist in the shadows, social outcasts, second-rate humans; how the tradition bars any contact with them; and how the modern world helps or abuses their status, on a whim. Perhaps it’s not a new story for some of us, but it’s told with such detail and contrast that it’s unbelievable and simple all at once.
Chuyia is young and smart – her wit helps cope with the situation, but also causes a lot of problems – she’s asking too many questions that go unanswered (what a great, old movie trick that is). She’s surrounded by women – of all ages – who either have accepted their fate, or try to defy it on daily basis. There’s an ancient woman in the house who daydreams about sweets she ate at her wedding – it’s painful and incredibly sweet to hear her reminisce about how things were like when she, too, was only seven years old. There’s a young woman (Lisa Ray from Bollywood/Hollywood) named Kalyani who looks after the girl, teaches her a few tricks, while trying to support this little, poor community of outcasts. They all pitch in, however they can, to bring some food to the table, to pay for the house, to afford clothes. Begging by the temple is their regular ritual. They almost all sleep on the floor…
This community would have been shunned by every other social circle, except that Kalyani (because of her looks and kindness) does bring some male attention to the rest of the widows, and Chuyia, with her childish abandon literally bumps into strangers and brings them into the lives of women. Some of these intrusions are welcome – others are very harmful, but all of them reflect the attitudes to widows in India. It’s a frightening, methodical segregation of certain type of people that seems to be accepted, and resented at the same time (think “doublespeak” of 1984 – we don’t like it, but it’s absolute, so we like it after all). It also analyzes the role of a woman in India – compared to that of a man.
Chuyia and Kalyani befriend Narayana (John Abraham) who is a graduate of law school, and is a follower of Ghandi. His views on widows are radical, honest, but given the circumstances, pointless. He’d like to help more, but got nobody who sees things his way. He’s a dreamer, and as a dreamer he’s full of optimism and hope – a great contrast to the women’s lives. The women have a cross-dressing eunuch to help them get around some of the restrictions, and looking rather clownish most of the time, this character is another incredible archetype – the fool – who speaks (or knows) truth but doesn’t do much with it.
Given all these well-rounded, compelling characters the movie feels at times like a great Greek or Shakespeare play – with incredible monologues and show-downs, with comic relief and musical interludes. Except that it has none of the Western themes in it. Even love and marriage are redefined in Indian terms. The story flows from one situation to another, without jumps of logic, without surprise endings, or cloying twists. The river is a powerful presence throughout the film – carrying off the dead, bringing in holy water, washing off sins, and moving you along as you observe and learn how these people lived in the 30s (and according to a footnote at the end – how most of them still live today). It’s both political and very personal, it’s a movie that people won’t go to see because it’s “Indian” but won’t stop talking about because it’s so honest and universal.
Don’t miss it in theaters this fall. A beautiful, uplifting, tragic and full of life at the same time. It even has an incredible soundtrack (as most Indian movies).