"The crew had traveled from all corners of the globe — Hungary, Germany, Canada, France, South Africa, and Australia — with the simple aim of working on a film... In silence, we sat on the steps of the District Magistrate building clutching copies of a letter... There I was in India, sitting on the steps of this government office, clutching my piece of paper, fighting for the first time for the right of freedom of expression. I waved a little paper flag with all my heart but wondered whether it was the business of a foreigner such as myself to enter a country like India, steeped in religious traditions and strong political codes, and try to challenge them. I was, after all, only going to put my flag down and head home" writes Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan, part of the crew on the original ill-fated Water shoot.
I saw Water yesterday. On a DVD got from Brazil. The movie will most probably never get released in India. While prostitution of widows might not be as 'unnatural' in India as lesbianism was, the fact that it happenned (and perhaps, is happening) under the watchful eyes of the religious establishment would be too much to handle for our cultural police.
The movie deals with multiple issues - child marriage, the widow's condition as ordained by religion and society, the radical Gandhi who's stressing on finding God in truth, the last vestiges of colonialism and zamindari system. It does so from Chuiya's, a seven-year old widow (played by Sarala) and Shakuntala's (Seema Biswas) point of view. And while Chuiya's movie is poignant, deep and raises many questions, Shankuntala's movie is too simplistic for the questions that it wants to answer.
The movie starts when Chuiya is sent to the widow-home controlled by Madhumati (Manorama) on the banks of the river Ganga. She thinks that she will go home soon as her mother will come to take her home. She soon learns however that her mother won't come to take her back and she's here to stay. With child-like resilience though, she makes friends with Kalyani (Lisa Ray), Shakuntala and Bua, and adopts the inhabitants at the home. For further synopsis, go here.
I would not want to spoil the surprise for you, but do watch out for the scene where Shakuntala asks Chuiya, "Main kaisi lagti hoon?".
Shakuntala was fighting the battle against wordly desires for many years. However, she tells Guruji that if Bairagya (dispassion) means getting over wordly desires then she's far from it. This doesn't stop her from pointing to God when Chuiya asks why a widow can't get married. To complicate her battle, she gets to hear that a new law has been passed - a widow can get remarried. She uses this information to try and free Kalyani.
Then, in a weak moment, she asks Chuiya, "Main kaisi lagti hoon?" (How do I look?)
Chuiya replies, "Budhdhi" (Old). Ouch.
The highlights of the movie, for me, are the performances by Sarala, Seema Biswas and Manorama. Sarala shows what true child acting can be, something I was missing ever since grown-up Ayesha took the kudos for Black. Seema Biswas is expectedly evocative, while Manorama as the gang leader, muttering obscenities, does a wonderful balance of the senile and the shrewd.
The movie follows its predecessor, Earth carefully - the literal blue tinge to the frames replaces the buff in Earth, the little girl's point of view is a constant and the structure of the narrative allows you to 'know' the ending at the middle of the movie itself.
There is one essential difference though. While Earth was taut(er), Water is languid, slow, serene and at times, soporific. It is a movie which I should have seen in a movie-hall, for any distraction can put you off the slow tragedy unfolding in front of you. The slow pace has been under criticism, rightly so in parts, and perhaps Deepa Mehta would have been better off showing the entire movie from Chuiya's perspective.
Besides the slow pace, I must also mention the discomfort I felt at certain moments. From the left-facing Swastika instead of the more common right-facing one, to descriptions of Gandhi, as the lawyer who's returned from South Africa (this is 1938), certain details while not 'wrong', seemed a little out of place. Deepa Mehta seems to have made the movie for audiences not well-versed in history of the time - in India and abroad. Still, it's worth one watch.
For a contrary point of view (a lot of stemming from "an awkward position in that room: although we were represented on film, many around us sounded like they wished to save us from ourselves") go here. And if you think that Deepa Mehta is exaggerating the dirt on the linen, go here and here.