Film Review: Water

by Monica Mody

The case of Hindu widows and widow remarriage has been taken up time and again in Indian literature since the late nineteenth century, particularly by Bengali writers influenced by social reform movements. Deepa Mehta's final film in the trilogy with Fire and Earth is not, in that sense, new. But it did not deserve the controversy it raked.

What Water does manage to do is make vivid our knowledge of the world in which the widows lived. The set of their house-spare, gray, closed-is a visual masterstroke, used to stunning effect, especially in the scene where the widows play holi.

With her thick-ankled, dimpled cuteness and natural aptitude for acting, Sarala (portraying Chuyia) impresses as a seven-year-old, by turns watchful and mischievous, precocious and generous. It is heartbreaking to watch her accept her fate. Still, it does seem as if the script is placing too much burden on Chuyia to be the symbol of unending goodness and hope in the film. The film would have been richer if it had lingered awhile on the dark heart of this character.

Chuyia's ally and counterpart in play and goodness, Kalyani, is played by Lisa Ray. She and the other widows make compelling characters. From the tenaciously devoted and industrious Shakuntala, played by Seema Biswas, to the larger than life and villainous Madhumati, played by Manorama, to the doddering-at-death's-door widow who lusts after laddoos, gulab jamuns and rasagullas day and night-each one is an unforgettable role, enhanced by good acting. John Abraham, however, does not ring true as a classically educated idealist who can spout Byron and Meghdoot with equal ease. However, it's a pleasure to see Waheeda Rehman, as always, even in her garishly dressed cameo.

Sri Lanka is Varanasi circa 1938. There, we see one section of the society responding ardently to the call of Gandhi and dreaming of freedom, while another is all too happy with the colonial rulers, their punctuality and Shakespeare, a conflict that was rippling through many parts of India during this period. In the film, it is represented by Narayan (John Abraham) and his buddy (Vinay Pathak), and its glib treatment makes for its weakest moments. Gandhi is invoked almost as a stock phrase and expected to stand in for everything that was changing in the socio-political landscape of the country. The script makes him as an answer to all ills, giving the story the faint whiff of fairytale. The addlebrained-ness of Munnabhai was more credible. The spread of political ideas through a people is a complex process, and should have been handled better since it is such important subtext for the film.

Water's rather unnecessary moralistic tail can perhaps be traced to 2000, when hordes from VHP and RSS set fire to the sets of the film in Varanasi. No doubt, Hindu widows continue to be ostracized, thrown out of houses, and discriminated against in many places. Many widows still live in Vrindavan and Varanasi in horrific conditions. But quoting, at the end of the film, the number of widows present in India as per the 2001 census seems to be slightly manipulative. This statistic seems to want the audience to draw a slightly misleading parallel between all the widowed women in India in 2001 and the life of the widows depicted in the film. Water tells a simple enough story and it should have been left alone as that.

The dialogue, translated into Hindi by Anurag Kashyap, is rather stilted. However, the songs and background music, scored by A.R. Rahman and Mychael Danna, are lovely and add to the film's sensuousness. Sukhwinder Singh's lyrics are as idyllic as they come.

Despite its flaws, Mehta's film serves as an important reminder of how religion can be misused to perpetuate injustices against the powerless in the guise of devoutness and self sacrifice-kudos to her for asking questions that are disturbing for many, such as whether to choose religion over moral obligation and vice versa.