There are films that aim to be hard-hitting with their portrayal of graphic violence against women, their no-holds barred accounts of numerous cases of abuse unleashed upon the innocent by evil, perverted villains. Films like ‘Matrubhoomi,’ for instance.
And there’s ‘Water,’ which in spite of its subtlety and calmness, reflects how disturbingly dirty the pond can get.
No doubt then, that films like Deepa Mehta’s ‘Water’ hit you harder and right at the gut.
The casting may not be perfect. The milieu isn’t authentic either. But we can’t really blame the filmmaker for that. She was refused permission to shoot in India. Besides, we know how Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das had shaved their heads in vain.
So, Mehta transports Varanasi to Sri Lanka, but just calls it India. She uses a largely South-Indian looking cast (most of them Sri Lankans) and indicates that the story is set in a South Indian village, with some of the characters calling the mothers ‘Amma,’ and yet, they all talk in Hindi. So right there, we can say that this is hardly a film that deserves an Oscar nomination. But it is certainly a film that we in India need to watch.
It is almost impossible to imagine this story set anywhere else but in Varanasi. It is indeed a shame that Deepa didn’t get to tell her story the way she originally wanted to. Especially, because the film examines issues that are still alive – widow-remarriage, gender roles, superstition and blind-faith.
The film unfolds as a series of events that examine the plight of widows, as seen and discovered by the latest entrant to the house – a child widow.
The mischievous Chuhia (Sarala) is at the centre of all action. There’s Madhumati (Manorama), the strict fat old widow who runs the house that Chuhia never gets along with, there’s Shakunthala, who’s like the mother-figure to her (Seema Biswas) and there’s the law-breaking angelic Kalyani (Lisa Ray) who becomes her best friend. When Gandhian Narayan (John Abraham) visits his village, he falls in love with Kalyani, woos her reciting poetry from Kalidas’ Meghdooth, and seems on the verge of a breakthrough before the complexity of the larger picture emerges.
Seema Biswas breathes so much credibility into her role, completely overshadowing the rest of the pack, but for little Sarala, who with her vulnerability, zest and playful demeanour makes Chuhia immensely likeable. Lisa Ray seems a little miscast but lends the role radiance and charm, acquitting herself as Kalyani creditably. The surprise is John Abraham, who though miscast, manages not to embarrass himself. In fact, he delivers the underplaying that the role requires with great sincerity. If he still looks like a star doing an experimental role, it’s probably that long hair. A close-crop would have not only made him unrecognisable, but also helped him shed his image and reinvent his onscreen persona.
Mehta keeps the mood light for most parts, using humour to address serious issues, and employs water as the visual leitmotif all through the story, quite comfortable with the other associate metaphors, given that this is her third in her trilogy. This is certainly not the best despite being the best-looking film of the three. ‘1947:Earth’ continues to be the best of the three, with superlative casting, a haunting score running through the compelling yet credible narrative that captured the angst of the bloodiest separation in the history of world geography.
‘Water’ seems a little watered down with an eye on the international market but it still manages to drown you in its drama.