Sunday, September 10, 2006

Film Review--Deepa Mehta's Water

The bhajanashram, the widow’s house, is a disturbing remnant of old Hindu culture protected by tradition and the subject of Deepa Mehta’s final installment in her stellar Elements trilogy, Water. Chuyia (Sarala), recently married at eight years old, finds herself a widow without ever fully realizing that she was even married. In accordance with tradition, though, her lot in life is now to spend her remaining years living a pauper’s life atoning for her husband’s sins, with shorn hair dressed in unornamented basic linens, incurring scorn from the townspeople who look at her mere cast shadow as a curse. With a rebellious spirit and an utter lack of acceptance of her lot in life, however, even if this headstrong-ness only comes from her ignorance of tradition, Chuyia turns the ashram asunder. She is incorrigible, and the only thing that keeps her sane is her relationship with the outcast widow Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the only resident who still has her hair and modest ornamentations. She is allowed these concessions because Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), the matron of the ashram, uses Kalyani as a call girl to the Brahmin caste and the main source of income for the widows. During an excursion in town with Chuyia, by coincidence, Kalyani meets the Ghandian idealist Narayan (John Abraham) and falls in love, intending to break tradition and marry him (widows do not remarry), which leads to inevitable tragedy.

Each film in this trilogy gives insight into a different side of the political and social problems present in India, mostly resulting from adherence to Hindu tradition based on old and suspect translations of ancient texts, and how these problems relate to the treatment of women. Here, the water from the title represents the Ganges River, which flows through Varanasi, the holy city where many of these widows congregate and where the film takes place. But in this holy city, and on this holy river, there is no forgiveness. These women are forgotten, left to accept the abuses without explanation. Worse yet, the majority of the women in the ashram don’t even remember their husbands. Chuyia is eight, Kalyani was nine when she entered the home, and this is typical of the women here. They are told from this young age that half their soul existed in their husbands and, because they are gone, these girls are only half human and “untouchable” (untouchable, that is, only to those below the Brahmin caste who, according to Narayan’s father in advice to his son upon his engagement to Kalyani, shouldn’t marry her and keep her as a mistress, because Brahmin can sleep with whomever they please).

Water takes place in 1938, when Ghandi first comes into the public eye and begins to affect the thoughts of Indians and tries to change many of these ill-thought traditions and, according to many governmental reports, the bhajanashram ended here. But this is why the story behind the making of the film is almost more intriguing than the film itself. According to Mehta, the inspiration for the film came from a specific moment that happened around 1990, when she witnessed a widow searching for her only pair of glasses, without which she was blind, crying for help and finding none. This image stuck with her and, if the ashrams were dismantled in the '30s or '40s, what is Mehta seeing here? Production on Water began in 2000 in the holy city itself but, after death threats issued toward Mehta and Nandita Das (the luminous actress who had starred in the first two installments of the trilogy and originally slated to star in the role that Lisa Ray eventually took), as well as the storming and destruction of their sets, production had to shut down. It wasn’t until years later that, after constant attempts to convince her, Mehta agreed to resume production, this time in Sri Lanka, secretly under the assumed name of Full Moon. Finally, the film was finished and released, and its success under this duress is clear. It is emotional, beautifully shot in greens and blues by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, finely acted (especially by Sarala who, although she was found in a small town by Mehta and spoke neither Hindu nor English and had to be directed through hand signals, convincingly represents both the stubbornness and vulnerability of a child), with a fantastic score mixing traditional Indian and modern Western orchestral music.

Fox’s DVD transfer of the film is beautiful, accurately showing the richness of color and the beauty of the landscape. The sound design is unornamented but adequate. The special features, while typical with a making-of featurette and director’s commentary, are more interesting than most because of the political struggles involved in the film and the sheer intelligence of Deepa Mehta. This final installment in the Elements trilogy is, along with the other two films Fire and Earth, is more than recommended. It is essential viewing, both in the sense of filmmaking mastery and insight into a culture that is staggeringly full of dichotomy and contradiction.