Robin Clifford“A widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste.
A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven.
A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal.”
-The Laws of Manu Chapter 5 verse 156-161 Dharamshastras ( Sacred Hindu texts )
In 1938 India, an ornately made up seven year old who has yet to lose her baby fat is rebuked for tickling the feet of the ill middle-aged man laid out on the cart she is perched upon. Chuyia (Sarala, "Tales of Kama Sutra") does not comprehend that this man has just been made her husband but that is nothing compared to what she must face when he dies the next day in the final installment of writer/director Deepa Mehta's ("Fire," "Earth") elemental trilogy, "Water."
Before her opening credits have finished rolling, Deepa Mehta has already begun to punch her message home. Widowed at seven, Chuyia's ornate wedding jewelry is stripped away from her, her lustrous long hair is shorn to the scalp and she is delivered to an austere ashram clad, like the other residents, in a plain white robe. Hindu law gives only three choices to widows - she can throw herself on his funeral pyre, marry his brother should he have one or sequester herself in an ashram. Fundamentalist Hindus adhere to these two thousand year old rules to this day.
Mehta's Chuyia is unwilling to accept her fate and the rebellious, outspoken little girl and her friendships with two of the women who show her kindness and their startlingly different outcomes gives the director all the tools she needs to explore both tragedy and hope during a time in India's history when the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi were provoking social change. The beautifully written script is itself like a trilogy as it shifts among these women creating strong portraits of each.
Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, "Bandit Queen") is the saintly widow who unquestioningly serves the impoverished local priest (Delon Weerasinghe) who leads prayer by the riverbank and shows Chuyia her first kindness in the ashram. Upstairs, cut off from the other women, is the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray, "Bollywood/Hollywood"), who invites Chuyia to play with her forbidden puppy. Kalyani also still keeps her shimmering veil of hair, allowed by the ashram's head widow Madhumati (Manorama) so that she can prostitute the girl out to Brahmins across the river and bring in the monies with which Madhumati indulges only herself. When Chuyia encourages Kalyani to meet with the handsome young lawyer and Gandhi follower Narayana (John Abraham), Kalyani's doomed fight for her freedom makes Shakuntala begin to question her own beliefs.
While Mehta's film is an indictment of religious fundamentalism and money as tools of repression, it is also a character rich story complete with musical numbers and the stunning cinematography of Giles Nuttgens ("Bee Season"). Allusions to "Romeo and Juliet" aside, the opulent and lushly romantic scenes between Kalyani and Narayana call to mind "The King and I's" Tuptim and her lover, their first musical montage a joyous celebration in the rain, their second, a more somber, haunting tune on a candlelit evening. There is symbolism in the water, fire and the cage of a parrot and irony in an old woman's longing for a denied sweetie when her wish is finally granted.
"Water" is a welcome throwback to films that expressed their social statements through characterization with exotic locations and villains (Raghuvir Yadav, "Lagaan," as the eunuch Gulabi). The film's final scene can even take its place among the great train platform farewells. It is an involving, moving piece of work with the gloss of an old studio epic.
Robin did not see this film.
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