So: my laptop exploded a few days ago, and I had a very brief window in which to recover anything off it that I wanted. And I found THIS! The VERY first Hindi film review I EVER wrote, back in 2006 (which gives you some idea of just how old my faithful laptop is).
Bear in mind that at the time, I was reviewing international/festival/art films weekly - the dvds were free from the local indie dvd store, the reviews were for the local college newspaper. And I knew NOTHING about Hindi cinema. I didn't even know who John Abraham was (can you IMAGINE?!). Anyway, here (I added pictures to make it more pretty):
Water (Deepa Mehta, 2005)
The first two films in Deepa Mehta’s ‘Elements’ trilogy, Fire (1996) and Earth (1998) addressed, respectively, the issue of lesbianism among traditional Indian women, and the partitioning of India and Pakistan. Mehta, then, is no stranger to controversy, and is clearly passionate about addressing social and political concerns in her films. It sadly comes as no surprise that this explains the lengthy delay between the making of Earth, and the completion of Water (2005). Filming in India was forced to a halt when Hindu fundamentalist groups objected to the subject of the film - the religiously proscribed treatment of widows in India in the years prior to independence from Britain. They protested by destroying the film’s sets and issuing death threats against Mehta. Four years later, filming resumed in Sri Lanka, the film referred to by a false title to avoid attracting any more unwanted attention.
Set in India in 1938, Water begins with a bride being woken by her parents. “Do you remember being married?” they ask her, before informing her that her husband is dead. The bride, Chuyia (played by Sri Lankan Sarala), is all of eight years old, and in accordance with the sacred texts, is immediately taken to a house for widows, where she will spend the rest of her life in a state of self deprivation, shaven-headed and dressed in white, the colour of mourning. If this sounds a bit harsh, the alternatives are hardly any better. If the husband is not survived by a brother willing to marry her, the only other choice for a widow is to join her husband on the funeral pyre.
The life of a widow is hardly suited to an eight year old – Chuyia is an energetic and vibrant force among the mostly aged widows. Chuyia, in all her youthful vibrancy, immediately clashes with the seemingly self-proclaimed ‘boss’, Madhumati (Manorama), an imposing woman charged with finding the monthly rent for the house, but bonds with the ancient, sweet-toothed yet toothless Auntie, and the pious, motherly Shankutala (Seema Biswas).
But it is Chuyia’s relationship with the young and pretty Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the only widow allowed to keep her long hair, that forms the real centre of the film. When Chuyia meets Narayan (John Abraham), an idealistic follower of Gandhi, and he in turn meets Kalyani, the true painful price of being a widow in this society becomes apparent.
The film’s attitude to religious law – and the explicit suggestion that certain religious rules are more about economics than piety – certainly explains the level of anger and resentment that would lead to death threats from religious fundamentalists. Yet from my point of view (someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy overt politics or films that beat you over the head with their message) Water is subtle enough in its treatment of the issues Indian widows face that it is enjoyable in its own right as a movie, rather than “an art film” or a ‘feminist film” or a “political film”. Mehta is a skillful director, and in making her film so widely accessible ensures her message will reach as far as it possibly can. Further evidence of Mehta’s acumen: while the theatrical version of the film was Hindi with English subtitles, the DVD includes a bonus 2nd disc filmed – not dubbed- in English.
Water was nominated for Best Foreign Film at last year’s Academy Awards, and is as visually beautiful as it is emotionally resonant. A thematically complex, lyrical and melancholy film, Water packs a weighty political punch disguised as a simple love story.