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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Water


In Water, writer/director Deepa Mehta finishes off the third part of a trilogy (with Fire and Earth) that examines issues of love, family, religion, and political upheaval in India. The backstory of Water is at times more interesting than the movie itself, so I will spend some time on the topic before getting to the film as an independent entertainment piece. The more you know going in, the more you can appreciate surprising aspects of the finished work.

Water examines a little-known (at least in America) aspect of strict Hindu religious observance. Widows have three options after their husbands die, according to the religious texts. They may be cremated along with the dear departed, they may marry their husband's younger brother (if available), or they may lead a life of strict asceticism, separated from and shunned by the rest of mainstream society.

Mehta is not particularly supportive of this traditional practice (although of Indian background herself, she now lives in the Toronto area). But she is quick to point out in one of her commentaries that the women who follow this life of religious observation and self-denial do not see themselves as oppressed and disadvantaged. They simply see it as the way things are. A Hindu philosophy of Maya says that any perception of ourselves as separate from the whole is an illusion, so that a sense of self as separated and somehow worse off than others is an error in perception. Mehta shows that the ideal of this concept is not necessarily embraced by all and that a subjective view of the conditions imposed upon the widows can be damning.

Because of her willingness to examine the "widow's plight" from a modern perspective and to have some of the movie's characters condemn these practices and flaunt the orthodox religious teachings, Mehta ran into serious trouble from Hindu extremists. As she began shooting the film in India in 2000, she received death threats, had her effigy burned in public, and eventually was forced to shut down the production due to mob protests around her locations.

It took another four years to remount the production, this time shooting in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka as a stand-in for India. She had to recast several roles and made some updates to her script. Because Sri Lanka does not have the same architecture and cultural background as India, the company created a massive full size set along a river, with temples, walkways, statues, and the like stretching on for nearly a mile. The scale of the construction is impressive and you never get a sense while watching the film that anything is artificial.

The plot of the movie follows an 8-year-old girl, Chuyia, in 1938 India. As still happens around the country (although technically illegal then and now) she has been married off at a very young age to a much older man. The movie opens with her father telling her that she is now a widow (which means as little to her as the fact that she was married). He has her head ceremonially shaved and takes her to an ashram (call it a religious retreat) for widows. There Chuyia will be expected to live for the rest of her life, eating one meal a day, praying, and begging in the street. It's not a prison... the women could leave whenever they want, but honestly, they have nowhere else to go.

Chuyia meets (and introduces us to) the other major characters in the film one at a time. There is the very large and very stern Madhumati, a widow from an upper class who has taken over the position of superiority and "management" of the ashram. Patiraji is an extremely old toothless woman who has been there since she was a child and now dreams of the simple pleasures of eating a forbidden sweet pastry. Shakuntala is a serious and quiet woman of great faith and devotion to duty. And living apart from the rest in a spartan wood shack is Kalyani. Kalyani is a shock. Unlike the rest of the women who have shaved heads, sunken cheeks, and are generally older than 40, she is a beauty in her mid-20's with flowing black hair and perfect skin and teeth. We learn later why Kalyani is special to Madhumati and the upkeep of the ashram. But the important point is that she becomes a girlfriend/older sister to Chuyia.

Chuyia one day is outside the ashram on the main city streets and runs into Narayan, a man also in his mid-20's and a progressive follower of Gandhi (who is just becoming publicly prominent and starting to promote nationalism to take the country out of British rule). Narayan and Kalyani find themselves attracted to each other and eventually they have to deal with their desire to be together versus religious and societal pressures to stay apart because of Kalyani's status.

Most of the movie is played out in a slow and measured progression of events. Information about the traditional Hindu customs, traditions, and practices are doled out in small bites to the audience. Character development is slow and studied as well. Mehta simply shows some of the religious activities without trying to explain them to the audience. There is no voice-over narration or explanatory dialog to help along an American audience, but it is never a barrier to understanding the dramatic story.

Dialog is in Hindi and the DVD offers subtitles in English and Spanish. Strangely, several of the actors did not speak Hindi. The astonishing performance of the young girl, Sarala, who plays Chuyia is more amazing when you learn that she was cast in Sri Lanka and learned the entire script as phonetic memorization! Lisa Ray, the fashion model turned actress who plays Kalyani, had to work on diction and facility with the Hindi dialog since she is another Toronto resident who only speaks Hindi as a second language after English. Both women turn in excellent performances.

The movie is shot as a visual art piece. Colors are filtered to subtly showcase watery blues and greens. Dark interior shots are always easily made out, with soft unobtrusive lighting on the actors' faces so you know exactly who is inside and can see what they are doing. The focus on the widows in the ashram means there is a preponderance of soft washed out colors, since they all wear white saris and live in stone and earth settings. When Mehta contrasts this with a scene showing the Festival of Color (the one day a year when the widows can indulge their visual senses), she super saturates the bright yellows and reds so they practically jump off the screen.

Although the movie is definitely not a "Bollywood musical," Mehta does insert one standard Indian movie sequence featuring a song and shots of the young lovers expressing their happiness in a music video style. It feels jarring and out of place with the rest of the movie to me, but I am not an Indian film fanatic used to seeing musical numbers in every film I see.

Water delivers an important and dramatic story and message. It is visually sumptuous. Production values are of highest quality throughout. The acting is excellent. Thinking back on each aspect of the film, I find myself impressed with each component. And yet I found myself fidgeting at several points during the movie and looking at my watch. There is just something about the overall pacing that didn't work for me. I think it may be the way each sequence in the movie showcases exactly one small relationship or interaction or plot point as an independent concept. I felt like I was watching Mehta laying out the movie as a series of bullet points. The interplay between the various people and events is left as an intellectual exercise for the viewer rather than showing on screen as a cohesive whole. Still, the movie made me want to catch up with Mehta's earlier work. And that is the highest praise you can give a director.

The DVD transfer is very good. Subtitles are clear and easy to read. The English translation is never unintentionally humorous or mixed up. Sound quality is good, but not showy. The surround soundtrack is mainly used for atmosphere rather than effects (there is one thunderstorm with some good booms). Special features include a director's commentary, a four-minute short on the troubles of making the film, and a 20-minute featurette talking more about the production, with comments from several of the actors.

Parents should have no worries about any imagery shown in the film. There is no nudity or violence. But the subject matter is adult in nature and covers issues of sex and death.

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