Water (2005)

Michael Buening

Water is excellent enough on its own and well worth seeing, but an opportunity to further explore issues of societal oppression, especially surrounding the making of this film, was missed.


Director: Deepa Mehta
Cast: Seema Biswas, Sarala, Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Manorama, Raghuvir Yadav
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2006-08-29

Like Cleopatra and Apocalypse Now, Water is a film with a backstory as compelling as the finished product, where the action in front of and behind the camera is drenched in remarkably similar themes.

The movie concerns the spiritual struggles of a group of women in a widow's ashram in India, where they are placed to live in poverty and treated as half-dead after their husbands die (no matter their age when they are widowed), and the attempts by the child Chuyia (Sarala), the older, stoic Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), and the prostitute widow Kalyani (Lisa Ray) to realize and escape the restraints of their conservative patriarchal society circa 1938.

Shooting of the film in the Indian holy city of Varanasi was initially forced to shut down after Hindu fundamentalists and officials with the right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh party raised objections to the film's criticism of Hindu society. Part of a manufactured election year push to drive voters to the booth through hysteria, a doctored version of the script was leaked to newspapers and a mob burned the sets and threw them in the Ganges River. The film was eventually completed four years later in Sri Lanka. In "The Story Behind the Making of Water", one of two behind the scenes documentaries included on the DVD, director Deepa Mehta says, "There was one thing I never lost and that was the resolve that I was definitely, definitely going to make this film."

The DVD provides a good opportunity not only to provide some historical context for Water, but to chart the parallel triumphs of the will behind the story and the production. However in the two documentaries, the backstory is broadly told with not nearly enough information and news and documentary footage to justify two featurettes. (The production problems are detailed much more thoroughly and movingly by Mehta's daughter, Devyani Saltzman, in her memoir Shooting Water.) By reiterating the overall problems without much insight or detail, the disc risks exploiting the backstory as a marketing angle that overemphasizes the controversy surrounding the film, praising it not for its artistic accomplishments, but for the admirable ideals of the people who made it.

Where the documentaries fail, Mehta's audio commentary succeeds, narrating the production's story while providing historical details and artistic insight in a warm, eloquent style that is as lucid as her filmmaking. Before the first fade-in she has already supplied a succinct description of her difficulties making the film, along with a summation of the film's themes of "love, triumph of the human spirit, which like water itself is something that flows, something we can't live without. It's something that can also pollute."

Proceeding with the opening act, when child bride Chuyia becomes a widow and is abandoned at the ashram by her parents, Mehta describes how she uses Chuyia to introduce the other characters with "camera movements completely dictated by the actors." She also gives background information on the actors, their working methods, and her reasons for casting them, revealing the directorial rapport responsible for the excellent performances throughout the film. This is especially the case with Seema Biswas, whose character Shakuntala gradually emerges as the film's heroine as she discovers her quiet reserves of inner strength. The commentary loses some of its verve when describing Water's weakest storyline, the romance between Kalyani and the idealistic rich Gandhian Narayan (John Abraham), which teeters on hackneyed love story conventions.

The commentary is equally informative on the director and crew's technical approach. Mehta altered her view of the film in the four-year lapse between the two shootings and points out instances where she cut dialogue to streamline the script and focus the story more on the character's actions. Composer Mychael Danna cites Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali trilogy as an inspiration for the overall tone of Water, but David Lean's historical epics grounded in specific characters are also evident in its style. Says Mehta, "I was trying to convey a canvas that's much larger than the people that inhabit it, the canvas of India, the canvas of the social change that is happening." This is accomplished through cinematographer Giles Nuttgens' use of intricate lighting in night scenes and a blue-green color palate during the day, which heightens the environment by illuminating the natural beauty that exists outside the ashram's wretched conditions. He also uses deep focus and spatial relations within the frame to set up clear identities for the characters and give their anonymous lives heroic stature.

In "Behind the Scenes", the second documentary included, actress Lisa Ray says that Water is "a heart film, not a mind film." It's also a simple film, driven by themes of freedom and self-realization and an easy to follow, almost Dickensian social melodrama. But it is not simplistic, the nuances run deep and it is driven by a humanistic impulse to find the sympathetic side to the most unlikable characters. Though a "heart" film, it is grounded in rational principles over stultifying senseless traditions, invoking Mahatma Gandhi's maxim, "Truth is God". The answer to what Mehta calls the central question of the film, "what happens when our conscience conflicts with our faith?", clearly resides on the side of conscience.

The film ends on a note of hope, with the promise of Gandhi's teachings and Indian nationalism on the rise. But this nationalism would blend with religious extremism to breed its own brand of senseless faith, as proven by the catastrophe surrounding Water's shooting. "It was a very well planned campaign to demerit the film," says Mehta. Unfortunately, the documentaries never address the specifics of this campaign. Why can't we see footage of the protests and the politicians that stoked it? What connects the fundamentalist activists of the film and today? Water is excellent enough on its own and well worth seeing. That Fox Home Entertainment passed up an ideal opportunity to further explore issues of societal oppression in favor of mediocre, behind the scenes material, is a shame.

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