Monday, February 19, 2007

WATER - the sad lot of Indian widows

WATER is a politically charged film exposing the cruel treatment of Indian widows in pre-independence India.

Director Deepa Mehta explores this alien world through the eyes of a young girl called Chuyia ("Mouse"). Married before puberty, Chuyia finds herself a widow and thus an outcast from society. Her family leave her in a religious house where these outcasts band together, praying for a happier reincarnation, whistfully remembering the years of feast, begging for money and, if young and beautiful, being pimped by a eunuch on behalf of the alpha widow. When Chuyia asks obvious questions - when do we stop praying? - where is the house for widowers? - the other widows anxiously quieten her. She is expected to accept her fate and the belief that merely by touching a married woman, she can pollute her.

As well as attacking the traditional treatment of widows, the movie attacks how high caste Indians treated the outcastes. In a striking scene, a Brahmin (upper class) man tells his son, Narayan - a liberal law student, follower of Gandhi, and the hero of the film - that a whore is blessed when a Brahmin sleeps with her. Therefore, he should feel no compunction in sleeping with the attractive young widow, Kalyani, and forget all this marriage nonsense. To marry a widow, whether whore or not, would be a sin.

WATER works best when following Chuyia's exploration of her newfound role in society. And for me, the real hero of the piece - in terms of an emotional and intellectual awakening - is the widow Shakuntala. Both are played by fine actresses - Chuyia by a young Sri Lankan girl and Shakuntala by Seema Biswas, famous for her role as Phoolan Devi in Bandit Queen. The love story between Kalyani and Narayan felt like a distraction, although presumably necessary to expose the hypocrisy of shunning the widows for being polluting in public but sleeping with them anyway in private. Lisa Ray is just okay as Kalyani - but then she is largely a cipher. But how pleasantly surprising to see Bollywood action hero, John Abraham, give a decent turn as Narayan!

Apart from the performances from Sarala and Seema Biswas, the key strengths of the film are its stunning and atmospheric cinematography and score. Its most obvious flaw is a melodramatic denouement which feels out of step with the mournful tone of the rest of the film. Is there enough here to merit an Oscar? I don't think so - at least not in the year of Volver, Tony Takitani, Pan's Labyrinth. I only hope that the movie has been nominated on merit rather than out of liberal solidarity. Famously, production in India was halted after protests by politicians still touchy about the criticisms of Indian society and the two leads had to be recast.

WATER played Toronto 2005 and was released in Canada in 2005. It opened in the US, France, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Singapore in 2006. It is available on Region 1 DVD. I do not know of a UK release date. WATER has been nominated for Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

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