Polluted Waters

'Water' is a film about the sexual exploitation of widows with a dose of shastras thrown in. But it fails to drive the point home.
Five years ago, vociferous Sangh parivar demonstrations had aborted the filming of Deepa Mehta's Water in Varanasi. No wonder she was anxious and apprehensive at its first screening in India, as the opening film of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), 2005. "I was hoping no one would protest or stall it midway," she says, visibly relieved that the show went off peacefully. Thiruvananthapuram wasn't disapproving at all. However, unlike the overwhelming response at the Toronto Film Festival, the reaction to Water here was palpably lukewarm.

Set in colonial India in 1938, Water explores the plight of widows through the eyes of the eight-year-old Chuiya (newcomer Sarala) who is sent off to a widows' home after the death of her aged husband. The head widow Madhumati (yesteryear's Hindi comedienne Manorama) supplies young inmates of the ashram to local landlords and rules the place like the Big Mama of a brothel. Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) is the quiet observer who counters this exploitation by making the beautiful young Kalyani (Lisa Ray) escape the ghetto. But Kalyani's freedom is short-lived—she commits suicide on realising that the Gandhian idealist she is in love with (John Abraham) is the son of the man she's been supplied to for years. In the end, when Chuiya too is slyly initiated into the trade, Shakuntala decides to free the child by handing her over to Gandhi's reformist supporters.

Water has already had a successful commercial run in Canada, grossing almost $1.5 million in four weeks after its release—the highest collections for any independent Canadian film this year. It is also the first Canadian film to have been bought by Fox Searchlight for a North American release in March 2006. It has even had a tough-to-please Salman Rushdie raving. "The film has serious, challenging things to say about the crushing of women by atrophied religious and social dogmas but, to its great credit, it tells its story from inside its characters, rounding out the human drama of their lives and unforgettably touching the heart," he says.

The right-wing objections to the film, fuelled by the supposed leakage of a distorted script, were to do with this running down of tradition and religion. That the film didn't just talk about the sexual exploitation of widows but held Hinduism and the shastras responsible for it. That it tried to equate Hindu widows with prostitutes. For a film dealing with such contentious, volatile issues, Mehta carefully chose the Kerala film festival as a viable launch platform. Obviously, because Kerala is perceived as the liberal, progressive state which is not prone to mixing religion and culture with politics. For Mehta, it represents progressive cinema as well. "Of late, a lot of Malayalam films have been about women's issues," she says. Nine years ago, her other contentious film, Fire, too had its premiere at the festival.

The first to have been thought out but the last to have been shot in the Deepa Mehta trilogy, Water deals with the politics of religion while the other two, Fire and Earth looked at the politics of sexuality and nationalism, respectively. Mehta had initially set the film in Varanasi's Assi Ghat, and later thought of shooting it by the banks of Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. But the Sangh was adamant that they wouldn't let her shoot anywhere in India. In the process, Mehta lost a lot of time and about a million dollars. "It was disturbing and dispiriting to not be able to do what you want to do. But with that kind of hatred, it was impossible to have a dialogue. We were up against a huge and well-oiled machinery," she says.

It was much later that Mehta quietly completed the film in Sri Lanka. Varanasi then had to get transmuted into the fictional town of Rahulpuri, somewhere between Bengal and Bihar. In retrospect, Mehta thinks it happened for the best. "Varanasi would have become too strong a presence, it would have been a character in itself," she says. But this enforced lack of locational specificity also weakens the film considerably. It prevents the characters from getting grounded within any regional or social framework. Where are they, where do they come from, you keep wondering through the film. All you know is that the river flowing along is the Ganga.

The palm-fronded waterways of Sri Lanka, that pass off for the Ganga, do provide the film with a lush visual elegance. The film is shot beautifully, each frame painstakingly composed. But this ravishing beauty and picturesqueness also lighten the plight of the widows—the ugliness inherent in their brutalisation gets totally side-stepped. In the end, the film doesn't move you, it doesn't create any sense of sympathy in the viewers, it just leaves you enjoying the beauty. The fluidity of the camera is not able to compensate for the lack of emotional depth. However, Mehta says the spareseness in dialogues and expression was a deliberate tool. "I did not want to explain everything," she says.

The shift in location apart, Mehta also had to work with a new set of actors. So Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and Akshay Kumar got replaced by Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray and John Abraham. Also, the name of the young widow was changed from Janaki to Kalyani to avoid any references to Sita. It also made it possible for Mehta to weave in a reference to her own favourite film, Bimal Roy's Bandini, where the lead character is also called Kalyani. "I wanted to do a film about women in enclosed spaces. In Bandini it was a prison, here it is a widows' home," she says.

What's interesting about the film is its attempt, however half-baked and unsuccessful, to see the plight of the widows in the context of the rise of Gandhi and his nationalist, reformist struggle. "As a sub-text Gandhi is the true hero of the film," says Mehta. He is the beacon of hope, the one who will relieve the widows of their miseries. However, much of the strong critique comes from the innocent questions and arguments of the child. Like when she wonders if there's a widows' home for men as well. Or when she slyly brings a ladoo for the old widow who is fond of sweets but can't have them.

Mehta has extracted a strong performance from Manorama as the feisty and domineering head of the ashram who is villainous in turning the home into a brothel, yet utterly helpless in not finding any other means to keep the place running. "I have worked in the industry for 60 years but never got a role like this," says Manorama. Seema Biswas is flawlessly low key as the introspective Shakuntala, and the child Sarala tugs at the heart-strings. Mehta found the girl in Galle in Sri Lanka. She doesn't know English or Hindi; she learnt her dialogues phonetically and Mehta had to give her directions in sign language or by using an interpreter. The weakest links in the film are Lisa and John. They are hopelessly miscast as the young lovers. Lisa, with her bee-stung lips, and John, with his designer glasses, look incongruously pretty when they should be looking traumatised; they are totally unable to shed their contemporary look to fit into the period setting.

Water is likely to generate debates of other sorts as well. Is the film's attempt to portray the shastras as the repository of evil too simplistic and pat an interpretation? Is it sensationalist in dwelling on the sexual exploitation of widows rather than talking of their real problem, ie, poverty? Is it portraying a negative image of India for active consumption by the West? "Why are we so insecure about how we are perceived in the West? We need to critique ourselves and look into our backyards first," counters Mehta. For now, all she wants is for her Water to flow across India.

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