Water marks the third film in Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s “Elements” trilogy, following Earth (1998) and Fire (1996). (It would seem that a tetralogy including “air” might be more inclusive elementally speaking, but that’s a separate issue.) I can’t speak to the quality of the first two, never having seen them, but it’s apparent that knowledge of those films is not a requirement for understanding Water.
The title is essentially metaphorical, though water — especially the River Ganges and rain — is a central visual component of the film, which examines the harsh realities of the lives of widows under fundamentalist Hindu religious practices. According to those practices, a widow has but three options after the death of her husband :she can throw herself onto his funeral pyre; she can marry his younger brother (presupposing there is one); or she can live a life of self-deprivation in an ashram. Since these practices are still in existence today — albeit on a lesser scale — it’s hardly surprising that Mehta’s film suffered numerous setbacks in shooting, when sets were destroyed, her life threatened, and shooting was otherwise interrupted by Hindu extremists.
Ultimately, the Indian expatriate (Mehta has been a resident of Canada since 1973) found it necessary to move the production to Sri Lanka. It was worth the trip. Though hardly action-packed — to the point of being leisurely, if not downright slow — Water packs a sneaky punch, the memory of which lingers long after the film is over. The filmmaker has an obvious penchant for a bit of the melodramatic in her plotting, but this is ultimately a strength, because it’s part of a central deceptive quality to the film.
Set in 1938, the film ostensibly centers on a 9-year-old girl, Chuyia (newcomer Sarala), who has been recently widowed (she doesn’t even remember getting married) and is thrust into an ashram by her family. While the film keeps her — and what happens to her — as the focus of most of the proceedings, she’s finally as much symbolic as she is a character. Similarly, the character of Kalyani (Lisa Ray, Bollywood/Hollywood), the beautiful widow of the ashram, serves both the plot (and its most melodramatic aspect) and a symbolic function.
As the most desirable of the widows, Kalyani is pimped out by the self-serving “house mother,” Madhumati (prolific Indian character actress Manorama), with the aid of a slightly fantasticated eunuch (who looks like a drag queen), Gulabi (Raghubir Yadav, The White Land). Kalyani’s lot in life starts to change when — through Chuyia — she meets Narayana (John Abraham, Kaal), a university graduate and follower of Mahatma Gandhi. In terms of plot, this is the center of the film.
But to recount the plot is to miss the point of the movie, which is less concerned with its story than with the effect the events of that story have on the supposedly secondary character, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, The White Land), a middle-aged widow at the ashram. When factored in with an elderly widow called “Auntie” (Vidula Javalgekar), Shakuntala, Kalyani and Chuyia form a quartet representing the full spectrum of ages in the ashram. Ultimately, it is Shakuntala — at first a devout Hindu — who is the most transformed of the characters.
She is the one who comes to understand the injustice of the patriarchal belief system — a system based on convenience, male domination and financial expediency — to which she and the others have been subjected. She is the one who finally makes the most daring decision in the film, breaking the chain of the cycle at the expense of her own long-held, ultimately undermined, beliefs. In essence, Shakuntala’s conversion is the real drama beneath the melodrama — and her actions, and the final image of her at the long fade-out at the end, give the film its emotional resonance.
Beautiful to look at — Mehta is never at a loss for a breathtaking image — Water is, however, not a film for all audiences. The slow pace may frustrate some viewers, but for those who can accept Mehta’s approach, it’s a remarkably rewarding film. Rated PG-13 for thematic material.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke