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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Water: Safe End to Mehta’s “Elemental Trilogy”

Devasish Ray
Washington DC

The US première of Deepa Mehta’s long awaited film, Water screened to a packed Baird Auditorium at the Smithsonian today. The concluding chapter of Mehta’s celebrated “elemental trilogy” has again featured women. This time around it addresses the plight of widows in colonial India when the entire nation is trying to gain freedom through passive resistance led by Mahatma Gandhi.

Yet, Water steers clear from being a political film. Instead it draws a parallel and questions the veracity of the freedom struggle as compared to the totally despicable conditions of ashram life of the widows.

Water centers on a child widow Chuiya who is rudely plucked from her family and sequestered in an ashram inhabited by elderly widows. Here she meets Kalyani (played by Lisa Ray), a breathtakingly beautiful and young widow who is forced to turn sexual favors to rich landlords in return for food. The pot-smoking mistress of the ashram is ruthless and uncaring and enjoys a pretty contended life in a cocoon, she has built for herself.

Kalyani gets another chance to settle down after she meets Narayan (played by John Abraham), the son of a rich landlord and a lawyer who falls in love with her. However, a cruel twist of fate and circumstances crushes Kalyani’s hope at a second shot at marriage, after a law is passed allowing widow remarriage.

The character of Chuiya (brilliantly portrayed by child artist Sarala) who is almost mutinous echoes the frustration and total helplessness of the widows who have come to terms with their way of life. One such character is Shakuntala ( Seema Biswas gives another great performance) a thinking woman, who befriends Chuiya and is successful in helping Chuiya escape from a life of sexual perversion and dominance of the mistress of the ashram.

Water, is perhaps not Deepa Mehta’s best film. The film tries to explore liberalism versus religious traditions set in a backdrop, which confuses the audience. A portion of the film was shot in India and the rest in Sri Lanka, when fundamentalists in India went on a rampage burning Mehta’s set down. The scenes in Sri Lanka look like the backwaters of Kerala and contradict the settings of Varanasi. Mehta’ attention to detail is questionable. In a particular scene Narayan replaces a family photograph with a potrait of Gandhi. The photograph should have been of a much younger Gandhi as the film is set in the year 1938.

Lisa Ray and John Abraham are perhaps not a casting coup. Yet Water should be seen for its content, brilliant photography and a director’s effort in telling a story honestly. It would be interesting to see how the audience in India reacts to this film that is if Water gets past the censors there.