November 04, 2005


Directed by Deepa Mehta Starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray and John Abraham

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Following Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), director Deepa Mehta finally completes her acclaimed and controversial "elements" trilogy with Water. Mehta's devastating depictions of gender disparity and religious turmoil in India provoked right-wing Hindu fundamentalists to stage protests, ransack theatres, issue death threats and even force the shutdown of Water's production five years ago. The director went on to make the lightweight Bollywood/Hollywood and The Republic of Love before returning to Water - this time filming secretly in Sri Lanka.

Hindu holy texts dictate that a wife has only three options upon the death of her husband: She must either burn along with his remains, remarry his younger brother, or live the remainder of her life in self-denial. Set in Colonial-era India inside a house for spurned widows, Water continues the trilogy's exploration of the culture's unspoken and unchallenged hypocrisies.

Eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) doesn't recall ever marrying, but the passing of her husband nevertheless divests her of sari, jewelry, hair, parents, a normal childhood and the possibility of happiness. The wretchedness of the women who keep her company allows her to grasp the bleak existence ahead: Elderly Patiraji (Vidula Javalgekar) fritters away her last days craving some sweets. Obese Madhumati (Manorma) bitterly abuses everyone. Beneath her resilient exterior, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas of Bandit Queen) still tries to reconcile her faith with her predicament as a widow. Lovely Kalyani (Lisa Ray of Bollywood/Hollywood) gets to keep her locks only because she must work as a prostitute to support the household. Handsome and erudite Narayan (John Abraham) takes a liking to Kalyani, but her circumstances threaten to keep them apart.

With a story that recalls both Romeo and Juliet and A Little Princess, Water has the surface trappings of a timeless tale. But by using a child's perspective (à la Earth), a doomed romance, a dastardly villain and an unsettling tangent about coerced prostitution, the film often seems to drip with manipulation. Furthermore, it endlessly bludgeons the audience with disconcerting scenes of widows enduring taunts and discrimination. With all the tragic turns of events and the uniformly cardboard characters inundating the picture, Mehta unwittingly invites skepticism from wary viewers. Landing the coveted opening spots at five festivals across the country (Vancouver and Toronto included) and a high-profile American distribution deal with Fox Searchlight, Water is one of the most prodigious Canadian films of the year. Mehta's gallantry and determination deserve admiration, and her new work is certainly an eye-opener for outsiders. At the same time, it lacks the moral ambiguity and multidimensional characters of its two unforgettable predecessors.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.