Monday, May 29, 2006
Deepa Mehta's Water is a lushly visual and emotionally moving film. I was utterly transported to another time and place, and completely engaged in the story of people enmeshed in a cultural tradition I was not familiar with. The story is set in northern India in the late 1930's, in the Hindu holy city of Benares on the Ganges river. In the Hindu tradition, widows are among the lowest caste of society, practically ostracized and treated like lepers. The film follows the lives of a group of widows who live together in a cloister, withdrawn from the city most of the time, and with their heads shaved in ritual shame. The story unfolds through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl, Chuyia, who doesn't understand that she was married off to an old man who died just after the wedding, nor why her father leaves her at this cloister. As the girl gets to know the various other widows in the cloister, and slowly finds her place in her new life, she also makes her own unforgettable impression on life in the cloister. There are several great characters among the widows, including the fat bossy and manipulative Madhumati, the gentle old "Auntie", the devout Shakuntula, and the beautiful young Kalyani. As the movie progresses and the characters develop, we hear an occasional mention of Gandhi, who is fomenting independence from the British and societal changes, but he is a far-remote figure to these lives. In the meantime, the precocious and spirited Chuyia, along with a romantic and idealistic Brahmin named Narayan, set out to make their own changes. The story will tug at your heartstrings as well as spur your sense of injustice, but it is not manipulative. By spinning a story with well-developed characters, Mehta's film is truly engaging. And the visual imagery, from the boats and bathers in the pervasive river, to the countless candlelights, is breathtaking. A week later and images and thoughts from this film still linger in my mind.