Directed by Deepa Mehta | Fox Searchlight Pictures | 114 minutes
Starring Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Seema Biswas, Sarala
Chuyia has learned that her husband has died from an unnamed illness. This is cause for sorrow, correct? Yes, but not in the way you might expect. It is 1938 in India, Chuyia is seven years old, and she remembers neither having married nor having met her recently-deceased husband. According to the contemporary interpretations of the Hindu scriptures, Chuyia now has three options: She may burn in effigy along with her beloved, marry her husband’s younger brother (if his family consents), or finish her life in rigid self-denial and partial isolation, never seeing her parents again. The latter is chosen for her and she is whisked away to a squalid ashram for widows.
This is the premise of Water, the latest film by Indian-born, Toronto-based, writer-director Deepa Mehta. With this effort she has completed what is now being called her Elements Trilogy, following Fire (1996) and Earth (1998). Do not be discouraged if you have never seen or even heard of the first two films. This is not a trilogy in the vein of The Lord of the Rings, which tells one long story cut into three pieces. It is more like Kieslowski’s Colors trilogy in which many of the major themes recur, but little else. Fire, Earth, and Water each has a different narrative arc, different characters, even a different setting and may be enjoyed individually as distinct works.
Sarala, the young actress who plays Chuyia, issues a performance of endearing informality. Apparently, she does not know a word of Hindi, the primary language of the film, and delivered her lines through rote memorisation, a fact not at all detectable to an unknowing viewer.
When she arrives at the home for widows, Chuyia learns that she must shave her head, remain chaste, exist under barely livable conditions, and be miserable for the rest of her life. “We can endure such a life,” one of the older widows explains to her, “because half of ourselves was intertwined with our husbands. When you are half-dead, how can you truly feel pain?” “Because I’m still half alive,” Chuyia retorts — and is briskly rebuked.
Initially, Chuyia is convinced that her mother will rescue her, “if not today then surely tomorrow”. But gradually she accepts her new life. The widows at the home are a twisted and dysfunctional, but earnestly devoted family. They care for their fellow widows — mainly by virtue of being able to share their misery with each other. There is the acerbic, ornery Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who manages the home with an elevated nastiness, the elderly but winsome “Auntie” (Vidula Javalgekar), the gloomy, but cautiously admirable Didi (Waheeda Rehman), and the beautiful and kind Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Shakuntala allows Kalyani to grow her hair long so she can send her down the river to work as a prostitute. Although widows are supposed to remain chaste, they have to survive somehow, and in the sanctimonious world in which they live, no one can begrudge them this. So Kalyani supports the entire household.
Through her daily travels down the river, Kalyani meets Narayan (John Abraham), a gentle, pensive young lawyer who is intrigued by Mahatma Ghandi’s new ideas of progressivism and liberation from England. Narayan is not afraid to question traditional interpretations of the Hindu scriptures. The two soon fall in love and wish to marry, but this of course is forbidden and therein lies the major complication of the film’s plot.
However, there is a great deal more to this than “does the guy get the girl?” Like the quaint Indian locomotive in a later sequence, the movie begins leisurely and methodically. But stick with it. It soon chugs along at a brisk pace. There are plenty of unforeseeable twists and the climax is cathartic and ultimately satisfying.
The last time I travelled to 1930’s India via the movie theatre I was heading toward a Temple of Doom. (Earlier in her career Mehta herself actually directed a few episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, but that is beside the point.) If you go to the theatre only to see Indiana Jones and his inferior imitators in movies that beset you with scene after scene of heart-pounding action, perhaps Water is not the film for you. But if you go to be transported to another time and place to empathise with authentic characters, then you will certainly appreciate it.
The deft cinematography brings us into this distant world with exuberance. The camera goes right down on the floor where the widows sleep and plunges amid the squalor of their lives. Interspersed with these are astonishing shots of India’s landscape, especially of the water. There is a particularly beautiful scene, unlike any I have seen before, of raindrops pattering upon the water.
Though set in 1938 in India, Water raises questions easily universalised. To what level and at what cost does each individual deserve to be happy? To what extent should we challenge traditions? What responsibility does each of us hold for those close to us? There are still movie-goers (though fewer and fewer) who shy away from subtitled films. Some avoid movies whose time, place, language and culture are remote and unfamiliar. But Water simply portrays genuine human emotion. And this is neither remote nor unfamiliar to any of us. This is a film not to be missed.
Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.