Movie Review: Water

The 2005 Canadian film "Water" directed by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta is set in the temple town of Varanasi known as Benares in 1938. Child marriages were a common occurrence then. The film depicts the hardships faced by Hindu widows of that time. Much of the story is told through the innocent eyes of eight year old Chuyia (Sarala). 

The Indian text "Manusmriti" defines the life of a woman as someone who is perceived as a natural extension of her husband. It says if her husband dies, a woman has three choices: a) she is considered as half dead and therefore has the right to jump into the funeral pyre, b) she can marry his brother or c) live in complete isolation. If she decides to live her life in isolation, the ascetic part, she enters an ashram for the widows, tonsures her head and adopts white clothes as the colour of mourning.

The eight year old Chuyia is recently widowed and her parents bring her to this ashram where widows across all age groups stay together. In this ashram, her head is tonsured and she is made to embrace white and is made to sleep on thin mats on the floors. The widows struggle to even earn their livelihood by begging for alms and by singing religious hymns on the ghats. Chuyia does not understand what has happened to her and often asks the question why she cannot stay with her parents. 

Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) realizes Chuyia's plight and takes her under her wings. The film introduces to a foul-mouthed Patiraji whose fondest memory is eating sweets as a child, we then meet Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a young and attractive widow who is forced into prostitution by the ashram head (Manorama). The eunuch Gulabi (Raghubir Yadav) supports the matron's stand and takes Kalyani to the house of the rich men in lure of money. In a very different way, we are shown how Kalyani befriends Chuyia and invites her to play with her dog Kaalu on the second floor. Next, we meet a good-looking Narayan (John Abraham), a law student and a supporter of the "Civil Disobedience Movement". Narayan yearns for a lover which is met through Kalyani. Their romance plays out on the banks of the Ganges, in the narrow and winding ghats, amid rains etc. 

As a film, Water marks the end of the Elements trilogy of Deepa Mehta (the previous two being Fire and 1947 Earth). It is a bi-lingual film shot both in English and Hindi with some fine music by AR Rahman though I missed his background score. As a film, it depicts the damage caused to human spirit which happens when texts like Manusmriti are treated as timeless. The film exposes how dignity and basic human rights are concealed and denied under the garb of religion. 

Summing up, the story is deftly woven and the film is a beautiful structured narrative aligned with some stunning cinematography. The way the actors have acted in the film add an extraordinary richness and lend the film a deep complexity. 


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