Deepa Metha's Water is set against the backdrop of civil unrest in India during the 1930's. As Gandhi’s call for passive resistance against British colonial rule grows and the country begins to find itself in turmoil. Set in the city of Varanasi it looks at the life of Hindu widows sent away from their homes after their husband’s deaths. They must live a shadowy existence as "living corpses", because of an interpretation of Hindu text. It is believed by some that when a husband dies a widow who lives on is half dead herself, because her husband made up half of what she was when he was living. The film caused a great deal of controversy when it was filmed with religious hardliners who believed it to be critical of the Hindu faith rioting and sending death threats to the cast and crew. How ever Metha's film is far more a look at social injustice than it is a film designed to be critical of faith.
The film starts out with a seven year old child being told that the husband she has no memory of marrying is dead. The girl’s father takes her from the family home to a place where widows live as social outcasts. There she is left never to return home or see her family again. Once there she soon learns life for widows is a hard one, shunned by the populace they are seen as undesirables much like the Untouchables in the strict cast system. Being only "half living" a widow is only aloud one meal a day must shave her head and own only one outfit so her status is clear to all. The girl meets with a range of widows from different backgrounds in her new home some who lived many years with their husbands before this life was forced upon them, others like her where child brides some of whom never met the man they are meant to be grieving for.
After seeing Water my thoughts are mostly positive about it, but there are some things which can't be ignored, firstly Lisa Ray is terrible, I know Indian culture prizes light skin and her mixed race heritage no doubt puts her in high demand, but she is utterly unconvincing. John Abraham is not exactly good either; in fact the male cast is pretty poor. The other main characters how ever are pretty good with a quality performance from the young lead Sarala as Chuyia and a stand out performance from Seema Biswas as the widow Shakuntala. Water is filled with very attractive shots, but I get the feeling that’s not really testament to any film making abilities and more to do with shooting in an area where just taking the lense cap off the camera is going to mean you capture something beautiful. That said it does mean at times the film is simply gorgeous to look at. The pacing of the film is a bit uneven for me and the plot fall into the category of serviceable, really it exists only as a vehicle for Mehta’s all be it admirable, one dimensional theme. I know the vast majority of reviews blinded by the plight Mehta brings to the screen feel this film is deep and meaningful but to be honest in my opinion it never goes much deeper than "Look at this, isn't it bad". I liked the film and was moved by it in places, but thinking about it after I realised I was moved more by the general subject mater than really anything Mehta herself has to say about it.
How ever those things considered it's still a film I highly recommend people watch. The plight of widow's as with other sections in a heavily class ridden society (India cast system being about as rigid as class systems get) is something that should be talked about and bringing it to the screen is a great way to achieve dialogue on the subject. The Hindu religion is far from being the only religion which seems to put far more restrictions on women than men. I am hard pressed to think of a religious system which doesn’t all be it more liberal believers may relax the rules. It's easier to point at other people’s cultures and faiths and say look at the things they do wrong, but I hope a film like this would also see viewers from around the world stop to take a look at their own cultures and faiths. Class, sexism and many other” isms'” are prevalent everywhere even in the most liberal of nations and society’s.
I am a big fan of the kind of world cinema that takes you to places you have not been to and times you cannot visit. Films that offer a window on to cultures and perspectives you might otherwise not see or think about. Those who enjoy films like The Bird People in China, Bombon: El Perro, Kekexili: Mountain Patrol and The Harmonium in My Memory should find plenty to love about Water and some might even shed a tear in places. Water is a flawed, but also rewarding filmic journey that I recommend taking.