Sunday, November 20, 2005

WATER: A Deepa Mehta Film

Drama, Romance
Runtime: 110 mins

Cast: Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Waheeda Rehman, Raghuvir Yadav, Vinay Pathak, Rishma Malik John Abraham

Directed by: Deepa Mehta
Written by: Deepa Mehta
Country: Canada/India

Went to see "Water" yesterday. Recently it's been on everybody's lips because it was the opening feature for the Toronto International Film Festival (2005) which, after Cannes, is the most influential film festival (think Oscars!)

Water is set in 1938 in Varnasi a city on the banks of the Holy river Ganges; this was the city most widows in colonial India went to after their husbands died. Many of them lived in "ashrams" (charitable homes) where they paid rent from the alms they received begging on the pathways that led to the numerous temples in and around Varnasi. According to the Hindu custom of the time, the widows must shave their heads and live in a cloister, where, for the rest of their days, they must atone for the sins that must surely have prompted their husbands' deaths. They wore only white, no make-up and had to subsist on very basic food since normal food was considered a luxury and thus a sin. People considered the widows to be bad luck and they had to be careful never to appear at weddings or other auspicious occasions. The only ceremonies they were called upon to attend were cremations, where they would their cries to that of the mourners for a small fee or a fistful of rice.

As always, when there are destitute women, there are men and even women, looking to prey upon them. Some of the rich men in Varnasi had no qualms about having sex with these widows and in many of the ashrams, the youngest widow was the one singled out to service them. She was given special treatment by the older widows because she was their golden goose.

As if this wasn't sad enough, since child marriage was prevalent in those days, there were many child widows, most of whom hadn't even seen their husbands because they did not go to their husband's house till they reached puberty. The husbands picked were usually atleast 10-15 years older than them.

This movie revolves around one such child-widow, Chuiya. She's only 8 years old when her husband dies,shortly after the wedding feast. She is brought to the widow house and is expected to spend the rest of her life there in monastic simplicity. Being a child she misses her mother and is totally irreverant to the domineering boss-woman, eliciting toothless grins from the other widows in the house. Chuiya constantly questions why she has to be there and in one really poignant scene she innocently asks where the men-widows are housed! Chuyia is taken under the firm wing of Shakantula (Seema Biswas), a severe and devout young widow who struggles to believe there is a divine purpose behind her exile. Chuiya (Sarala) gives a rivetting performance and as a member of the audience, you cry your eyes out when the heartless boss-woman sends her across the river to become a plaything for a rich, pot-bellied businessman who likes children.

The child's story is paralleled with that of another widow (Kalyani, played by Lisa Ray), who because she is the prettiest widow is prostituted to the rich Brahmins in the city. Brahmin men in those days had convinced themselves that they were doing the girls a favor by mixing Brahmin essence into their unworthy body and souls! Kalyani meets and falls in love with the high-caste idealist Narayan (John Abraham) and expresses her desire to remarry. Furiously irate at losing Kalyani, the boss-woman stomps into Kalyani’s hovel and hacks off her long tresses (she was the only widow permitted to keep her long hair so that clients would be attracted to her). With one vicious deed, she at once defiles Kalyani’s beauty, her intention being to lessen Kalyani's appeal with her suitor (Narayan).

The backdrop of the film is the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, who not only agitated for India’s independence from Britain but also sought to improve the lot of Hindu widows. Colonies like the one depicted in 'Water' aren’t nearly as prevalent in modern India, but according to Mehta, they do still exist. Through advocacy and activism, however, Hindu widows have become more independent.

The making of "Water" is the stuff of nightmares. During the initial shoot in Varanasi in 2000, Mehta and her crew were set upon by religious fundamentalists who alleged to have seen the script and deemed it anti-Hindu. Pieces of the set were thrown into the Ganges River; Mehta was torched in effigy and received death threats. The protest was a symbol of increased conservatism in Indian society; more immediately for Mehta and her crew, it represented a mortal danger. As a result, the production was shut down. Production started anew in 2004, this time in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. (Because Sri Lanka is primarily Buddhist, Mehta had to recreate a Hindu temple in the shooting locale.

This is what Deepa Mehta had to say about her film:

“...We are very good, as different nations and different cultures, to have a collective amnesia about our own problems. "Water" is about three women trying to break that cycle and trying to find dignity, and trying to get rid of the yoke of oppression, and if it inspires people to do something in their own culture, that’s what’s important...”