Deepa Mehta's Water

May I not wed as you have wed?

may it not break, beauty,

from out my hands, my head, my feet?

may Love not lie beside me

till his heat

burns me to ash?

may he not comfort me, then,

spent all of that fire and heat,

still, ashen-white and cool

as the wet laurels,

white, before your feet

step on the mountain-slope,

before your fiery hand

lift up the mantle

covering flower and land,

as a man lifts,

O Hymen, from his bride,

(cowering with woman eyes,) the veil?

O Hymen lord, be kind.

– H.D. 'Cassandra'

The difficulty in reviewing Deepa Mehta's Water is that it's not really one movie – it's two. The first is an exceedingly silly boy meets girl Bollywood costume drama starring Lisa Ray as the fair damsel in distress and John Abraham as her tall, dark and handsome Prince Charming. Ray is Kalyani, a hapless and oh-so-innocent young widow forced into prostitution by the head of her ashram. Abraham is Narayan, a rich zamindar's son, fresh out of law school, whose overblown romantic tendencies (he quotes Byron and Kalidasa, he plays the flute!) find expression in an idealistic love for Kalyani (imagine that! the two best looking people on screen teaming up! who would have thought it), as a result of which he plans to break with tradition and make this beggar maid…errr..widow, his bride. This Narayan, we are told, is an idealistic young man, burning with nationalistic fervour. But aside from putting up a framed picture of Gandhi, Narayan's nationalism seems to consist largely of growing an artful stubble [1], and mooching about after Kalyani. There's a point in the film where Narayan (adopting his look-at-me-I'm-so-idealistic tone of voice) lectures his father on how it's wrong to quote scripture for your own purposes. But the truth is that Narayan's own passion for reform seems to consist of little more than a sublimated desire to get under Kalyani's spotless white sari. At any rate, the whole thing from start to finish is triteness personified, complete with depraved old Zamindars, and Waheeda Rehman as the quintessential Bollywood mother. There are even songs in the rain! Abraham spends the entire film looking as though he's accidentally stumbled off the Siyaram ad set, and Ray, while admittedly the most gorgeous widow ever to grace Benares's banks, never manages to rise beyond her girl next door act. Ms. Mehta should have stuck with Nandita Das.

Fortunately, there is another film contained within Water. This one features the incredible Seema Biswas and is a heart-rending and poignant story about the shocking plight of the windows of Benares. The time is 1938. Chuiya, a seven year old girl, is widowed and left with an ashram by her family. Here she meets the other widows – ostracised by society, with no means of sustenance but the charity of others, these women live lives of abject poverty and humiliation. They are not allowed to remarry. They are not supposed to come too close to married women and brides, because their shadow is considered impure. They are to stay locked away in the poverty of the ashram until they die. It is a terrible, terrible fate.

Yet change is slowly coming. New laws, championed by reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, have made widow remarriage legal, and Gandhi's nationalistic movement is bringing a wave of social reforms in its wake. For the widows of Benares, however, all this means little. Even if they had the economic basis to turn these reforms into real opportunities, they are ignorant, often illiterate, women, mired in a world of superstition and ritual. Remarriage is a sin – the sacred texts say so – suffering is their prescribed lot and they must bear it.

In exploring these themes, Mehta's film does three things. First, it highlights the important social issue of the way widows are treated in India (Mehta claims at the end of the film that there are still millions of widows suffering the same kind of deprivation). Second, it provides a balanced perspective on the nature of this subjugation – tracing it back not only to parochial tradition, but also to very real economic issues and to the resignation of the widows themselves. And third, she converts the issue of widow remarriage into a larger symbol for a country on the brink of social change, trapped between the statutes of tradition and the imperatives of reason and personal conscience.

Seema Biswas is the embodiment of that struggle. Biswas plays Shakuntala, a stern but ultimately good-hearted widow who runs the Ashram that Chuiya is abandoned in, and is the one who, in her own unsentimental way, takes Chuiya under her wing. Shakuntala has no illusions about the future. She lives out her days with uncomplaining patience, finding what little comfort she can in the scriptures, but is too pragmatic to find any real hope in them. She knows there is no way out for her, and yet, when the time comes, and she recognises that there may still be a chance for some of the younger residents of the ashram, she is the one who wrestles with her conscience and finds the strength to guide them to their freedom.

Make no mistake, this is Biswas' film. Oh, there are a number of other sterling performances – Raghuvir Yadav is brilliant as the hijra Gulabi, and Manorama does an excellent job as Madhumati, the greedy head of the ashram. And child actress Sarala is heartbreaking as Chuiya. But Biswas is the true centre of gravity here – her very presence on screen radiates such intensity that a single close-up of her face is enough to compensate for all the cliched stupidity of the Ray-Abraham bits. The point is not just that Biswas is able to project an incredible amount of quiet sorrow, though to watch her act here is to be reminded of that Shakespeare line about sitting 'like patience on a monument'. The point is that Biswas has the ability to come across as amazingly genuine – every expression, every tone of speech is exactly right – she makes the part her own the way few actresses can. There's a scene in the film where Shakuntala playfully asks Chuiya how she (Shakuntala) is looking. Chuiya, with all the heartlessness of youth replies, "You look old". Just watching the expression on Biswas' face, the shock of the hurt like water closing over a stone, makes this movie worth watching.

This second 'side' of Water is easily the finest movie in Ms. Mehta's three part trilogy: a poetic, deeply moving piece that may be the best film I've seen come out of India in this decade [2]. I can't help wondering, therefore, why Ms. Mehta had to go handcuff it to the silliness of the Bollywood-like love sequences. Did we really need the Ray-Abraham romance? Okay, so the two stories are linked, but surely the gaps in the Chuiya Shakuntala story could have been filled some other way? I for one, would have liked to see the other residents of the Ashram explored more. That would, admittedly, have made this a more serious film – but it is a serious film anyway, and all the faux melodrama that the Ray-Abraham bits add to it seem misplaced and annoying. Water is half Aparajito and half Parineeta (my review here). If only we could get the one without the other.

Notes

[1] To be fair, this does seem to occupy a lot of his mental energies. There's actually a dramatic moment in the film where he lathers his face with shaving cream, presumably in preparation for a shave. Then, at the last minute, he thinks the better of it and washes the foam off. One wonders what would have happened to the history of the British Raj if he had in fact shaved his beard off that day.

[2] Not that I watch enough of Indian cinema for that to mean much.

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