Film review: Water



In these times of rampant religious bigotry, it’s unfortunately no surprise that the production of Deepa Mehta’s new film Water was dogged by violent protest by Hindu fundamentalists. This film, the third and last in a trilogy by the Indian director after Fire (1996) and Earth (1998) shines a light on the milllions of Indian widows forced to live with social and cultural discrimination; a practice that shamefully continues to this day. How bad is the discrimination? Get this: widows must remain loyal to their deceased husbands or, according to ancient Hindi law, be reborn in the belly of a jackal. Ain’t religion great?

Filming began on location in Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganges, but after the production was plagued by protest, death threats and political manipulation, had to continue in secret in Sri Lanka. It seems some were unable to accept the film shows certain Indian cultural practices in a poor light (perhaps they find the mindless garbage churned out by Bollywood to be a more fitting filmic ambassador for the country). Not to mention the fact that Hindu fundamentalists seem indisposed towards discarding a cultural and religious practice that, like the caste system, keeps the rich and powerful on top and the poor and disadvantaged on the bottom.

While Water is undeniably a political film, it also deeply romantic and quite beautiful. Sarala, an eight-year-old actress full of life and charm, plays newly widowed (yes, at eight) Chuyia, who enters the ashram and begins shaking things up. The stunningly beautiful—though, it must be said, very Western-looking—Lisa Ray plays Kalyani, a young widow forced into prostitution to support the other widows of the ashram, who captures the heart of a progressive Ghandi disciple and law graduate Narayana (John Abraham). There are moments of heart-rending beauty here—after Narayana first meets Kalyani, we see him walking, smiling, through the driving rain, intercut with Kalyani and Chuyia playing and dancing in their little hut. The pure happiness of the moment is beautifully captured, aided by music by A.R. Rahman.

When I walked out of the film there were still tears welling up inside me bursting to get out. The assured blending of personal romance and tragedy, the real knowledge of so many lives spoiled by ancient religious dogma, the beauty of the Ghats along the riverbank and the way they are filmed—all of these elements work together to make a stunning filmic experience. Highly recommended.

Also make sure you catch the other two films of the trilogy. Fire is excellent and tells a highly controversial (for India) story of a lesbian love affair. I’m still tracking down a copy of Earth.

Five rasgullas out of five.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. anaglyph
    Apr 26, 2006 @ 14:20:28

    It’s kinda hard to know why being reborn as a jackal would be such an unusual thing. I mean, if you believe in reincarnation, then you really have very little choice in what you get reborn as, as I understand it. I mean, you could do a lot worse…

  2. UniversalHead
    Apr 26, 2006 @ 14:36:42

    Doesn’t a belief in reincarnation usually also encompass the belief that one’s actions in this life affect what one is reincarnated as?
    It’s such a nasty little personal religious rule. They’ve identifies exactly which animal you’ll be reborn as if you don’t spend the rest of your life in thrall to a dead man’s memory. This animal we all revile and think of as sneaky and mean and selfish.

  3. anaglyph
    Apr 26, 2006 @ 18:23:04

    Doesn’t a belief in reincarnation usually also encompass the belief that one’s actions in this life affect what one is reincarnated as?
    Yes, but no-one knows exactly what you’ll come back as. There’s no ‘schedule’. Like: you commit adultery, you come back as a wasp. Or you steal a piece of bread, you come back as a toad. Etc.
    Like all religions, they just make stuff up.
    Actually, that gives me a good idea for a post…

  4. pil
    Apr 26, 2006 @ 18:57:17

    “This animal we all revile and think of as sneaky and mean and selfish.” What a wonderful thing – to be reborn as a beautiful wild animal, free from the travails of this urban mortal coil. THAT’S why we know reincarnation is too good to be true – life is not that merciful.

  5. anaglyph
    Apr 26, 2006 @ 19:53:51

    “This animal we all revile and think of as sneaky and mean and selfish.”
    Yes, Pil has a good point – it’s such an anthropocentric view that jackals, or any animals for that matter, are somehow inferior to humans… Who’s to say? The life of a jackal might actually be OK…

  6. UniversalHead
    Apr 26, 2006 @ 20:23:26

    I was of course describing the jackal in terms of the anthropomorphic characteristics we have for some reason bestowed on it. I’ve got nothing against jackals.
    And in this case, they know exactly what you’ll come back as, according to Hindi law, if you’re a widow and don’t do what you’re supposed to.

  7. anaglyph
    Apr 26, 2006 @ 23:09:24

    And in this case, they know exactly what you’ll come back as, according to Hindi law, if you’re a widow and don’t do what you’re supposed to.
    Sure, but it’s just arbitrary. They just make stuff up. As I say, there’s no schedule for reincarnation, so why does any Hindu think this, in particular, matters?
    Not a lot of point trying to reason about it though, because it make no sense, like most religious dogma.
    Or jackalma.
    On a tangent, I bet they have no expectation that men whose wives die stay faithful…

  8. UniversalHead
    Apr 27, 2006 @ 10:02:56

    The whole point here is that it’s not arbitrary for these particular religious laws – in this case there’s a very specific ‘punishment’ (according to their cultural views about jackals) for this ‘crime’, and I have no doubt there’s many other specific rewards and punishments for specific deeds, all laid down thousands of years ago by some bunch of male priests whose job it was to preserve the status quo.
    Reason? Ha! Men subject to the same religious restrictions? Double ha!

  9. anaglyph
    Apr 28, 2006 @ 11:39:11

    What I meant was that the choice of a jackal is arbitrary. There is no formal register that says each particular ‘sin’ is equated with any particular animal reincarnation. There is the odd specific ruling like this particular one, but there is no system.
    For instance, is it better to come back as an elephant or a jackal? As a porpoise or a tapir? Like all religious thought, it is, by necessity, anthropocentric. A jackal is just chosen because of human perceptions of what a jackal is. It has no basis in rationality.

  10. UniversalHead
    Apr 28, 2006 @ 11:58:09

    ARGH! Of course it’s arbitrary! Of course it’s irrational!
    I feel like we’re stuck in one of those strange looping exchanges where both people agree completely but think they don’t.
    I must have expressed myself badly at some point. When I said ‘we think’ back there I was speaking as someone who believed in this guff.

  11. anaglyph
    Apr 28, 2006 @ 20:44:05

    Oh, I’m not arguing with you, just pointing out the absurdity of reincarnation as a belief system. I never understood how anyone went for it. The other, major, nutty thing about it is that if you can’t remember what you did wrong in a past life, how the hell are you supposed to correct it? This idea is daft by any stretch. It supposes there is an absolute ‘outside’ knowledge that will somehow guide you through the correct choices. Or, perhaps more understandably, requires that you follow Religion X’s mandates, because of course they know what’s right and what’s wrong…
    Where have I heard that story before?

  12. UniversalHead
    Apr 29, 2006 @ 00:35:04

    Ahh, religion. It’s all bloody nuts. High time we left it behind with the stone knives and bearskins in my opinion.