by Jason Pyles
Though it looks like a film from India, “Water” is technically a Canadian film that was set in India, filmed in Sri Lanka, and written and directed by the Indian-born Deepa Mehta. (And today — January 1 — I noticed, happens to be Mehta’s birthday.)
“Water” was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 for best foreign language film but was beat out by Germany’s “The Lives of Others.” Also, “Water” is part of a trilogy and is preceded by Mehta’s films “Fire” (1996) and “Earth” (1998), which I haven’t seen.
When movies begin with some kind of ominous prologue, my interest is immediately piqued:
A widow should be long-suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste. A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven. A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal.
We’re told this comes from “Sacred Hindu texts.” And we know that what follows will be a widow who disobeys the edict. But what we don’t know is that the widow who introduces us to the aforementioned disobedient widow will be about 7 years old.
It is immediately difficult not to be judgmental of this belief system. And for those of us who attempt to approach “Water” with an open mind, Mehta antagonizes further because she has an agenda: We are shown vividly how some widows in India around 1938 (and still today) are neglected and mistreated. As I watched, I couldn’t stop thinking of how lepers were similarly detested in the Bible. Naturally, the grotesque irony in “Water” is how Kalyani (Lisa Ray) was no longer good enough to speak to men, but she could be prostituted for income and treats.
These surface observations have deeper implications that tell us this is more than just another sad tale of star-crossed lovers: At first, we may suppose that the vulgar Madhu Didi (aka “Fatty”) and Gulabi (the pimp) were just two bad seeds. But after hearing Narayan’s logistical breakdown about widows being an economic burden on their families, we realize that financing an “ashram” or house of widows may indeed be tricky. So, we are left to wonder if prostitution for survival (because “not even God can question survival”) is not as uncommon as we might suppose.
In an effort not to ramble on, I must finally comment on what a beautiful film “Water” is, particularly its soundtrack. The film’s main lovers’ theme, which may be called “Chanchan,” evokes Rusted Roots’ “Beautiful People,” which I dearly love.
Thanks for choosing this film, Barrett.