Water (2006)

Reviewed By Doug Bentin
Posted 08/11/06 11:05:24

"More religious fundamentalism"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Water,” Deepa Mehta’s strikingly beautiful film about the sorry fate of widows as dictated by Hindu fundamentalism, began shooting in 2000 but was shut down by the riotous destruction of religious conservatives. Re-located to Sri Lanka, the shoot resumed a couple of years later under a false title. Finally, the finished product is here and it is both visually and emotionally stunning.

Chuyia (Sarala) is an eight-year old widow in the India of 1938. By the holy laws of Manu, composed 2000 years ago, she must be removed from society and sent to live in an ashram with other Hindu widows of varying ages. This is a life of which she’s never heard and only gets through the first days of her exile by believing that her mother will show up soon and take her home.

The house is run by Madhumati (Manorma), an aged fat crone who prostitutes one of the younger women to supplement begging as a source of income.

Chuyia is helped by middle-aged Shakuntula (Seema Biswas), who quiets her on her first day and tries to ease her along. The child-widow is also befriended by Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the lovely young woman who is being whored out.

One morning, on the banks of the Ganges, Chuyia and Kalyani meet Narayan (John Abraham), who has just passed his law exams and is a nationalist follower of Gandhi. He falls in love with Kalyani and doesn’t care about her situation. The fact that she has slept with Brahmins for money is less a hindrance to their relationship than her status as a widow, a woman so low in the society that her shadow is not allowed to touch a bride for fear of jinxing her marriage.

The film is a plea not to change the law—we are told that even in 1938 the civil authorities allowed re-marriage for woman—but to change the way of religious thinking that permits millions of women, even today, to be shut away. Narayan does say at one point that the real problem is money, not religion, because what the families of these widows actually want is not to have to feed and shelter them, but religious tradition gives them permission to do this.

We see clearly that some of these women would like to break away, even while believing that to do so would be sinful. Like the terrible Madhumati’s pet bird, they have become so used to the cage, escape is too frightening to contemplate for long.

Mehta’s script references “Romeo and Juliet” a few times and leads us to anticipate a troublesome fate for the lovers. The ensemble acting is finely constructed, and first-timer Sarala, as the child-widow, looks and acts like a real little girl and not like a kid who will necessarily grow up to be a movie star.

Director of photography Giles Nuttgens has done an outstanding job of capturing the sublime beauty that exists next to the poverty of India.

During an onscreen discussion of the unfairness of the law of Manu as it relates to widows, a touch of ethnocentrism began formulating in my head--and then I remembered the moment in “Walk the Line” with June Carter in the general store being told by a good Christian woman that June must be a sorry disappointment to her parents because she is a divorced woman and divorce is an abomination.

Just think about it.

Like Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters,” this one will have you grating your teeth in frustration.

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