Directed by:Deepa Mehta
At a time when religious fundamentalism has become a pervasive global phenomenon, it should come as no surprise that filmmakers from various countries would find it a compelling subject. Perhaps no one has embodied that commitment more passionately than Deepa Metha, an Indian director now living in Toronto. Over the past decade, she has made a trilogy of films about her native India, focusing on both the cultural and religious differences which abound there and the painful price so many of her countrymen have paid for asserting their individual convictions in the face of rigid societal norms with which they do not agree. In 1996, Metha’s Fire examined the requirement in Hinduism that a wife must be subordinate to her husband, regardless of his treatment of her and the propriety of his demands. Two years later, Earth explored a group of young people from different religious traditions who thought themselves lifetime friends until they faced the impact of the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. In Water, the director works from her own script in examining the role assigned to widows in traditionally conservative Hinduism.
The film is set in 1938, as Gandhi first begins to challenge British rule there along with a number of the religious practices then widespread among his Hindu supporters. Widows in that tradition had three choices upon the deaths of their husbands; (1) marriage to his younger brother, (2) committing “sati”, (suicide by immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre) or (3) living a life of celibacy, discipline and solitude in a separate community of other widows, with no chance for remarriage.
The film opens with the agonizingly slow death of a young man in his early twenties who leaves behind his grieving parents and Chuyia, his newly-married, pre-pubescent wife. After the funeral, the young girl’s parents take her to an ashram in a town located on the banks of the Ganges managed by Modhumati, a tyrannical, corpulent warden who controls the lives of her fellow widows as though they were her prisoners, which, by virtue of religious dictate, they in fact are. Chuyia doesn’t initially realize she’s going to spend the rest of her life in the company of this gradually rotting group of women and when she does, she seeks solace from Shakuntala, a no-nonsense substitute for Chuyia’s mother and Kalyani, a beautiful and quietly beguiling young woman who is forced to live physically segregated from the rest of the women there. But why the ritual isolation? It’s because Modhumati meets the financial needs of her bedraggled group by selling Kalyani’s sexual favors to wealthy men in the village which feeding her sisters in widowhood as she’s simultaneously ostracized.
Narayan, the son of a local businessman, meets Kalyani one day in the marketplace and becomes immediately smitten; the inevitable clash between personal choice and religious dictate drives Kalyani to a desperate choice, which solves nothing but triggers Modhumati’s decision to order Chuyia down the same path of sexual degradation. Shakuntaka intervenes, snatching Chuyia from the ashram and giving her to the supporters of Gandhi, whose opposition to Hinduism’s treatment of widows has begun to win the charismatic leader a growing following.
Theaters in India were burned to the ground when Fire was first shown there a decade ago and so much religious pressure was put on Mehta during the filming of Water in Varanasi, (Hinduism’s Vatican) that the production was forced to close down. (Mehta resumed filming in Thailand and only those with a personal acquaintance with the original location will notice the difference.) But an appetite for controversy, no matter how well-intended, doesn’t trump the need for a well-told story; the actors and actresses employed here are all perfectly suited, but the script presents them in such a polemical fashion they have little credibility. Good and evil are demarcated so starkly it’s easy to share Medhta’s abhorrence with the inhuman cruelty inherent in the religious custom she’s castigating without caring very much about the victims she presents. Only once, when Narayan comments sarcastically that simple economics is a major motivation of those who insist on adherence to the monastic alternative for Hindu widows, does the screenplay allow a character to speak with credibly balanced human emotion.
Water’s cinematography is crisp and straightforward while the film’s riotous colors and sinuously erotic musical score blend perfectly with the period locations, sets and props to provide a vivid depiction of the last years of pre-WW II colonialism. But the director stacks the deck so heavily in favor of her point of view she winds up demonstrating cinematic overkill instead of righteous indignation. The fact that much has changed in India since the period in which the movie was set is given passing notice in the closing notes but even this fails to create a proper sense of balance.
The verdict? This obviously talented and well-intentioned director provides a movie far less subtle and compelling than it might have been.
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