Friday, April 28, 2006, LISA ROSE, Star-Ledger Staff
Directed by Deepa Mehta. Stars Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Sarala. In Hindi with English subtitles. Opens Friday at theaters in New York.
The poignant import "Water" reflects on the plight of Indian widows. According to Hindu custom, women are not allowed to remarry after their husbands die. They are abandoned by their families to dwell in squalor in ashrams, where some of them are sold into prostitution.
The film is set in the holy city of Varanasi, on the Ganges River, circa 1938. It centers on three widows, one of them a young girl, who live with a dozen other women in a dreary residence. The characters find hope in Gandhi’s peace movement.
"Water" rounds out a trilogy of pictures addressing human rights in India. Toronto-based director Deepa Mehta launched the element-themed series in 1996 with "Fire," which centered on a lesbian affair between an unhappy wife and her sister-in-law. Two years later, she followed with "Earth," a feminist look at Indo-Pakistani parti tion.
Riots by religious extremists delayed the making of the third chapter. Protestors destroyed sets and threatened Mehta’s life. She was able to resume work on the project by moving the production from India to Sri Lanka, where the film was shot in secret with a new cast.
Considering the situation behind the scenes, it’s remarkable that the movie was completed at all. Mehta makes a statement but doesn’t belabor her points. She tells the story with metaphors, using water to signify death, divi sion and rebirth. Lyrical imagery is matched with subtle performances.
The first widow we meet is Chuyia (Sarala), an eight-year-old bride whose parents bring her to the ashram after her husband dies. Her head is shaved and she’s left to live with a group of strangers. She is told that because her husband is dead, she is half-dead too and must spend the rest of her life grieving him, even though she barely knew him.
Lording over the house is Mad humati (Manorama), an irascible widow who’ll bend the rules if it benefits her financially. Nicknamed "Fatty" by Chuyia, she eats lavish meals while the rest of the women starve. In order to earn money on the side, Madhumati turns one of the tenants, Kalyani (Lisa Ray), into a prostitute.
Chuyia finds a sister in Kalyani and a surrogate mother in Shakun tala (Seema Biswas), a longtime resident who is beginning to see that there’s a difference between following her faith and following her conscience.
A tragic chain of events is set in motion when Kalyani and Chuyia cross paths with a handsome law student (John Abraham). He and Kalyani fall in love but the romance is doomed because she is reluctant to forsake the traditions that have defined her life, miserable as it is.
"Water" grows choppy towards the end. There is an extraneous sequence in which Gandhi oversees a prayer session at a train station. Characters discuss his teachings throughout the tale so the audience doesn’t need to see him to understand his connection to the story.
The movie may take some missteps but the flaws don’t diminish the clarity of the message or the intensity of the emotions. Many of the cruelties depicted in the film remain a present-day reality for women in India, as widows continue to be ostracized by Hindu radicals. A closing title card says there are some 34 million widows living in the nation.
Rating note: The film contains sexual content, strong language, adult themes and drug use.