Skimming the Surface
It's set in colonial India and intents to act as a mouthpiece to highlight the plight of Hindu widows then (and, we are told, even today, something which needs to be substantiated). Few moments into the movie and it is easy to see why it's called ‘Water’. Water is symbolic at many levels. The obvious one being that the story unfolds on the banks of the river Ganges. Extended a little further, ‘Water’ could be symbolic of the significance that it's Gangajal has in Hindu culture - as a cleansing and purifying element. Seen in the context of the movie - as a cleansing and purifying element in the lives of the various characters, who are living in some forms of a personal hell that they seek deliverance from.
Therein lies the irony too – the very river considered to be the symbol of purity, has been sullied and desecrated down the ages, with scant regard towards what is actually needed to keep it pure, healthy and alive. And so, the story of the river could actually be the story of the women in the story – deified as Goddesses by the same culture that stoops to an ugly form of societal dominance to dehumanize them through the systematic elimination of all that is pleasurable from their lives once they are widowed (and hence, once they discontinue to serve any purpose in the family, and as a character in the movie states, ‘is just another mouth to feed’).
Subsisting within the confines of a life marked by self-denial and forced abstinence (a hellish life which, ironically enough, according to the scriptures, is to ensure their place in heaven) - some of them aspire to be like the lotus, which blossoms despite the filth surrounding it. But then, neither is a woman a lotus (as one of the characters reminds us), nor is she desirous of being deified as a Goddess – she wants her place in the world, equivalent to any other human being, to enjoy and partake every worldly pleasure that she is entitled to, by virtue of being an individual. This, is my interpretation of what the director intends to convey through the movie. Also referred, in parallel, is the non-violent, nonetheless strident war of Mahatma Gandhi and his followers, towards achieving a similar objective – freedom. Making the freedom struggle for the country's independence another parable in the movie.
‘Water’ unfolds through the eyes of 8-yr old Chhuiya (played by Sarala), who is the newest inhabitant of the Vidhvashram when she is widowed at an age even too young to know what marriage means and is frighteningly caught in an adult world of social norms that are fraught with hypocrisy and perversion. We are subsequently introduced to the other inhabitants – the stoic, serene Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who has chosen to devote her life to the piety her dharma has initiated into, till the day she is forced to choose between her dharma and her antaratma (inner conscience). Then there is the impossibly-beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) who, we learn eventually, is the ‘jewel’ of the ashram as she serves a more odious purpose in the functional well-being of the ashram. The other characters include the dictatorial Madhumati (Manorama), who has through unexplained means taken up the charge of running the ashram. And Bua, a geriatric occupant who has been living this life of forced deprivation ever since she was a little girl, and her days are spent fantasizing about the delectable sweets that she last indulged in on her wedding day, as that little girl who was too young to even comprehend marriage.
The other significant character in this tale is that of a young law student and a Gandhian idealist, Narayan (John Abraham), who is smitten by the lovely Kalyani and sets out to defy tradition by marrying a widow.
Despite the potent metaphor (captured beautifully through the lens of the cinematographer in luminous shots that seem to be drenched in hues of green and blue), some poignant moments and a competent performance by Seema Biswas and the little Sarala, unfortunately the movie fails to touch a chord.
Neither does it have the brazen starkness of a ‘Bandit Queen’ (a movie which is truly capable of shaking you out of your cocoon of oblivion and pushing you into a horrific world which is as real to some as your refined urban existence is to you) nor does it have the lyrical angst of a ‘Pinjar’. The weakest point of the movie is the crux it rests on – the dreamy love story between the beautiful widow and the handsome idealist. It is far too flimsy, which makes the core intention of the movie trivial.
To begin with, the task of carrying the movie through the love story rests on the pretty shoulders of two model-turned actors – Lisa Ray (playing Kalyani) and John Abraham (playing Narayan), who undoubtedly make an attractive pair but do little to add any weight to their characters. And you are left wondering what was the director’s objective behind this casting. Wouldn’t the need to tell the tale in all earnestness have driven the choice of actors to be based on acting capabilities rather than aesthetic appeal ?
In Kalyani’s character, at no point do we feel the anguish of a woman who spends her days locked up like chattel and at nights ferried across the river to fulfill lasvicous needs of aging men. We expect, but don’t sense any cynicism towards men and matrimony in someone who has experienced only the dark side of both. Neither do we understand why Narayan is motivated to defy tradition to marry Kalyani (besides her porcelain good looks and a set of self-righteous ideals infused by Gandhian ideology). What is it that binds them as individuals and draws them to one another, to indulge in forbidden love. Here are two people, caught in a stifling social order - we fail to experience the sense of release they would have felt in the brief moments of liberation that they snatch to get away from the reality of an existence that has become fetid with age-old customs. And though we would want to feel the exuberance of unexpected, tender moments they experience or the pain of unrequited love, we feel nothing. In short, the two characters seem to be playing a part in a fairy tale, reciting poetry and exchanging soulful looks, drowning the whole purpose of the movie in cheesy, adolescent-like love.
The dialectic process that leads the character of the stoic Shakuntala to go through an awakening (who till the end seems to be resigned to her fate) provides the movie some credibility in attempting to state its message of social reform, however, in conclusion, the movie disappoints and fails to connect at any level, leaving you with no images or thoughts that have the potential to linger on. And I wonder what were the protesters protesting against. They have done more service than disservice to Deepa Mehta, by sensationalising it - which allowed Deepa Mehta to bank on the curiosity generated by the controversy. In reality, the movie is worth no protest - and if this was considered worthy of an Oscar nomination, an Oscar nomination too means little.