A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Water is a rare movie that succeeds in being many things at the same time. It's a love story, and it's political; it has aspects of coming-of-age drama while also exploring the gaps between generations; there is poetry in both language and vision; it feels at times like a fantasy, but one achieved through realism, through the rare opportunity to peer into a world most of us would never have the opportunity to see.

Written and directed by Deepa Mehta, Water is the third in her "elemental trilogy," having been preceded by Earth and Fire. I had seen neither before watching the DVD of Water, so don't worry, you don't need to know the other stories to know what's happening in this one. You're probably going to want to go back and watch the others just because Water was so good, though. I know I have put them at the top of my rental queue.

Water is set in India during the 1930s. Gandhi is starting to gain notoriety and his progressive ideas are sweeping over a nation that has spent too much time under foreign rule. That is merely a backdrop, however, an indication of a larger social milieu. The real story is in an ashram where widows live the remainder of their lives in a state of denial, compelled by Hinduism to abandon the material world at the same time their husbands did. Only, since they are still alive, they have to do so by renouncing their very existence. Heads shaved, allowed only one meal a day, and forbidden from any extended contact with men, they live a meager existence together in their own pocket culture.

The film opens when eight-year-old Chuyia (played by Sarala) is informed that her husband has died. Not even old enough to realize that she had been married, Chuyia is in a state of confusion when she is shuffled off to the widows' ashram. She rebels and fantasizes about escaping. Eventually, she settles in, befriending the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who has been forced into prostitution by the rotund ruler of the house, Madhumati (Manorama), in order to provide for the needs of the other widows. Chuyia and Madhumati clash instantly, and it's only thanks to intervention of the calm Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) that the young girl escapes a beating.

The injustice of how the widows live is quite obvious, and Mehta doesn't have to overdo it to make us see her point. She deliberately sets the movie at a time of cultural change in India, because it gives her a convenient platform to illustrate this bizarre situation. The three generations of women--Chuyia, Kalyani, and Shakuntala--represent three tiers of belief. The youngest does not yet know what is in store for her, whereas the older is completely resigned to her fate. It's only the middle woman, Kalyani, who is aware of both sides, and who can temper the hope of the child with the wisdom of age. The handsome and sensitive Narayan (John Abraham) represents the progressive mind of India. He is willing to buck his mother's desires for him to marry within his class, smitten as he is with Kalyani. A student of Gandhi, Narayan is also an aficionado of romantic poetry, imagining himself as a warrior in an epic battle for love. He's going to marry Kalyani, and he's not afraid of the consequences.

Naturally, changes of this kind do come with consequences, and none of the women are unaffected. Shakuntala is goes through the deepest transformation, and the fate of the child is placed on her back. All the actors are great, but Biswas has the most work to do. The gradual erosion of her resolve could have been overwrought, but she makes the inner conflict feel real. It's largely down to her that the ending works. Once again, in less capable hands, the final scenes could have been schmaltzy, but Mehta is not interested in a complete triumph. She has written a story where good things happen, but with the appropriate price.

Just as complex as the social issues is Mehta's approach to the various images of water in the movie. She is not content to establish one metaphor for the element, but to look at all of its uses. It might be cleansing and life giving, but it can also take away. It can ferry us to a new life or to our own destruction. The most romantic use of water imagery, however, is when Narayan is alone with Kalyani and he recites a verse about how rain clouds are the messengers of the heavens. Thus, his failure to see an oncoming storm also becomes all the more ironic.

Even if Water didn't have such an involving story, it would be worth watching just to look at it. Mehta and her director of photography, Giles Nuttgens (Young Adam), are clearly enamored of India. The city streets are lovingly shot, the details of the people and their surroundings orchestrated down to the smallest detail. This means they also don't shy away from the squalor, which provides an excellent contrast to the gorgeous nature shots. The ones centered around water are particularly beautiful.

Water isn't just an exceptional movie, but it's also an exceptional DVD. In addition to a commentary by Deepa Mehta, there are two featurettes on the making of the movie. A lot of preparation went into getting the historical and cultural details of the movie correct, but there was also a behind-the-scenes struggle to get the movie made that is just as interesting as the final product. Faced with opposition from religious fundamentalists who misconstrued Mehta's intentions, the production was shut down before it started, and it took Mehta several years to get it going again. When she did, she had to shoot in Sri Lanka instead of India. For a film about the gradual change of religious politics set over sixty years ago, the battle against Water is a grim reminder that we're still faced with such problems today.

Current Mood: contemplative

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