Water (2006)

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Review #125 of 365
Film: Water (2006) [NR] 114 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $13.25
Where Viewed: Landmark Seven Gables Theatre, Seattle, WA
When 1st Seen: 16 May 2006
Time: 4:30 p.m.
Review Dedicated to: Dr. Nas A. and her son Arsalan A. of Minneapolis, MN


Yesterday was an enlightening one for me. It reminded me a bit of history class in junior high. For it was in those classes, that, for the first time, I learned of the terrible ugliness in the world from which I had been so carefully shielded by a mother who didn’t want me watch television or read the newspaper. Looking back, I’ll never know whether her choice to shield me from the reality of a world that, at the time, was at war—yes, as in when they announced over the loudspeaker in my elementary school that the Vietnam War was over, I didn’t know a war was going on—was a good one or not. Nonetheless, homeschooling for suburbanites was not in vogue at the time of my 7th grade year, so it was Junior High history that finally broke the truth to me. It was a hard one. I learned of all kinds of things that I thought were absolutely unconscionable from the Holocaust to the subjugation of the indigenous people of North America to so-called Indian Reservations. It was a hard couple of years. I learned briefly about the caste system in India, and I thought it was even worse than the stuff they taught us about the Communists and Socialists in the USSR and Europe. At least the intention under communism and socialism were noble if unattainable. What possible good could it be to pre-assign people based on birth to a prescribed swath of poverty or riches? Sometimes, I think I am grateful that my teacher didn’t know more, and that there is still so much I never learned. Some great people have quoted over and over that those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it and use this to justify teaching history. I wonder if that is true. I wonder rather if we never taught children any of the ugliness of the world or the past history of inhumanity, and only taught them the love and the beauty, if there would never again be any ugliness, while, on the other hand, teaching them all about the ugliness, plants the seeds in some of their minds that ugliness is ok or a foregone conclusion. And by ugliness, I don’t mean, of course, physical appearance, I mean anything and everything that has ever had to do with hatred. For it is hatred, I believe, that accounts for and justifies in the minds of those that feel it, all of the evil, selfishness, self-righteousness, prejudice, malevolence, and criminal behavior in the world. Well, something to think about anyway.

So this brings me to the subject of the most recent film in Deepa Mehta’s ‘elemental’ trilogy: Fire, Earth, and now Water. As the advertising campaign suggests, Ms Mehta’s film was nearly destroyed, and as it was it was, it was delayed by more than four years and had to be filmed in Sri Lanka rather than India, due to threats from religious activists who feared the film would make their religion look badly. While her script was approved by the Indian government, this did not satisfy many of the more rebellious types. In any case, Ms Mehta prevailed and Water was made. Water plays a seminal role in Hinduism where it used to purify and cleanse. As water is the single most important molecule to living organisms on Earth, it stands to reason that it would play a role in nearly all religions. Hence the title of the film. Really, though, the film is about the women of the Ashram. I had heard of Ashrams before, but never knew what they were. Now I know they are the institutions or homes to which widowed women are sent—still to this day in some provinces in India with certain religious majorities. Back in 1938 when the film is set, and just when Gandhi was coming into prominence in the drive to free India from British colonial rule, women could be married as young as 7 and, subsequently, widowed by age 8. Holy scriptures in the Hindu religion suggested to the people interpreting them at the time that widows were ½ dead and would not be able, therefore, to interact with and contribute to society in any meaningful way. So, they were sent to live in Ashrams (houses of women who are all widows). Their heads were shaved to the scalp to mark them as such, and they were to live out their lives in virtual exile. This is a practice about which I had never heard before I saw the preview for Water. And, it definitely fits under the category of things I wish I had never known about. The very concept makes my heart sad. I know it’s all in what you believe, and I am one that firmly believes in freedom of religion. And, I don’t mean to mock or belittle this religion or any other for that matter. Yet, I cannot see that this would be the good and loving practice God would want. The film’s script does make some references to the fact that maybe this is not exactly what the scriptures called for, and that maybe the practice was developed for economic savings instead—but that comes from and up and coming nationalist not a religious person.

Ms Meeta conceived and wrote the script for this film through the eyes of a seven-year old widow named Chuyia played by a spectacular child actress named simply Sarala. Sarala delivers a stunning performance akin to one of the best ever given by a child in film history. Again in 1938 India, marrying a 7-year old girl was perfectly permissible (highly illegal in India today). Ill-fated Chuyia’s poor husband died before their marriage meant anything to Chuyia—all the more disturbing for her then when she is taken by her father to have her head shaved and then dumped on the front steps to the Ashram where she was to live out the rest of her life. Once there, immediately she was confronted by the elder women of the Ashram. The largest and meanest of which seemed to be in charge. Some of the women felt badly for her, while for others she served as a painful reminder of their arrivals as child widows, and still others saw her as an opportunity to mother a child they never got to have. Most USAers will not know the other stars of the film Lisa Ray and John Abraham. Lisa Ray plays the very special widow Kalyani. As the daughter of an Indian father and a Polish mother, Lisa Ray has been rated among the world’s most beautiful women and has graced the covers of fashion magazines as a true Asian supermodel since she was a teen. How striking it was to see her in this role where her beauty is underplayed in favor of her gentle nature, pleasant smile, and adoration for young Chuyia whom she quickly befriends via the use of a small, black, bad omen, puppy named Kaluu. Her role in the Ashram is ‘special’ because the leader of the Ashram will occasionally instruct her to go with her eunuch friend who then presents her to various clients. Thus the mystery is solved as to why she is the only one in the group who has been allowed to keep her long and beautiful hair. This part of the film and the story as a whole is left largely to the audience to pick up from clues and is also downplayed. In effect, everything in this film is down played so as not to distract from the heart of what is really the central story…the attempts by the women of the Ashram to gain dignity as they live out their lives as virtual untouchables relying only on their faith to get them through the years or decades alone. Midway though the film, Kalyani catches the eye of Narayana (played by the other aforementioned Indian superstar, the equally handsome John Abraham), a young man just back to his native town having finished law school. His family is of the gentry class, but young Narayana has taken a fondness for the ideas of Gandhi and the freedom of Indians. When he meets Kalyani, it is love at first sight for him, and he sets his focus on two things: freeing all widows from the Ashrams and marrying her.

At times, Water is as slow moving as the trickle of rain on a window and just as meandering. There is no doubt this is an important film, especially given that there are currently over 32 million widows in India still living in Ashrams (now run by the government) but still living in abject poverty and virtual exile from the mainstream society and certainly without the hope of re-marriage should they desire it. The acting in the film is beautifully well done with Ray and Abraham carrying commanding leads and young Sarala as worthy of an Academy Award® nomination as Shirley Temple, Jodie Foster, Tatum O’Neal, or Haley Joel Osment ever were. The story is ripe with subtleties of culture and tradition, beauty and torment; and, of course, water plays a crucial literal and figurative / symbolic role throughout. The only qualms I found myself with in the end were a nagging feeling that the ending was too unfinished leaving many unanswered questions as to what happened to Chuyia and Narayana and that the pace while perhaps intentionally slower and meandering at times, was just a bit too slow and meandering. Otherwise, I would say this is a sensational movie of historic consequence and purpose that should be seen and valued along with other great stories of the on-going worldwide plight of women. Maybe this film will have a more lasting impact for social change and justice than the history classes from which so many seem not to learn a thing.

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