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More emotionally powerful and moving than words can possibly say
on 1 December 2006
Water is far too powerful and moving to be called a mere film; this is a brave cinematic triumph that illuminates a tragic issue that few in the West know the first thing about - namely, the historical plight of widows in Hindu society. It also has much to say about modern Hindu culture as well, though, as the mistreatment of widows is still a problem in India today - and quite a touchy one, as made clear by the reaction of Hindu fundamentalist groups in India during filming. As I watched the end credits of the film roll, I was a little puzzled as to why the movie was shot in Sri Lanka, but now I have learned that the original production was basically run out of Upper Pradesh, India, because it was attacked as anti-Hindu in nature. It took four years for the filming to be taken up again - this time outside of India, with the two lead roles played by one actress who only spoke Hindi as a second language (Lisa Ray) and another who spoke no Hindi whatsoever before filming began (Sarala). Obviously, the subject matter makes for a most touchy issue; Hinduism is the world's oldest religion, so we're talking about traditions ingrained into much of the population for thousands of years.
I first became fascinated with India a little over a year ago, and I found this film to be nothing short of shocking, exposing a part of Hindu culture I knew nothing about. I knew that widows had to give up their own lives in the funeral pyres of their dead husbands many centuries ago, but I had no idea that widows still gave up the majority of their lives here in the modern day. It is heartening to discover that Gandhi opposed this traditional practice. This great man was about much more than peaceful opposition to British colonialists and the elimination of the caste system - and widows were basically an anonymous cast unto themselves, separated and shunned by society. It's especially tragic to see a young and vibrant life essentially snuffed out by this practice - and it's doubly tragic that so many of these women did not question it, as they had been brought up to believe they deserved to be punished for not dying when their husbands died. It's even more especially tragic when such widows included little girls.
Chuyia (Sarala) is one such girl, widowed at seven years old. She accepts the ritualistic shaving of her head to indicate her widowhood, but she is far too young to understand why her parents abandoned her, leaving her in the care of a group of widows forced to live outside of normal society for the rest of their lives. Initially rebelling against her new position in life, she finds only one kind soul, a beautiful young lady named Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Kalyani lives somewhat apart from her fellow widows; she has a dog (which is forbidden) and she also still has long hair - but only because the dominant widow forces her into prostitution. Kalyani soon meets a young man named Narayan (John Abraham), a modern thinker and follower of Gandhi. They fall in love, and Narayan (to his mother's horror) asks her to marry him. That sets even more dramatic events in motion, leading up to a conclusion that will more than likely have you in tears.
As you may have guessed, this is a pretty depressing film, with a number of very uncomfortable, heart-breaking scenes. Your heart just goes out to so many of these widows, from the outrageously young, such as Chuyia, to the very old (such as Auntie, who has spent the better part of a century dreaming about the sweets she has been unable to taste since the time of her own childhood wedding). Amidst so much hopelessness, however, there is a modicum of hope embodied in one very religious woman (Seema Biswas) who begins to question the values she has always believed in - and in the end there is also Gandhi, who has returned to his native land and just been released from prison by the British (Water is set in 1938).
I really wish I could convey to you the raw power and emotion of this extraordinary film. The story is woven together in a masterly way, evoking almost infinite meaning from so many small incidents and events, and on a surprisingly large number of issues. The cinematography and sparsely effective musical score simply soar, and the performances of the entire cast could not be more impressive. I don't know if I've ever seen a film express so much meaning so effectively. Water is just a magnificent cinematic achievement.