Movie Review: WATER (2005)

Published by Shah Shahid on

As South Asians, we all have a sense of pride about where we come from, especially those of us living in North America. More specifically, as Indians, (and when I say Indians I mean of all of us stemming from pre-independent India, such as Pakistanis and Bangladeshis as well) we have more to be proud of, keeping in mind our tormented and oppressed history. I don’t have to point out the fact that India was under British occupation for more than 100 years and that we had to fight our way to freedom, through means of revolution and an uprising which is a very poignant part of our history, and for some, it is what ends up defining their origins.

But there as some aspects of our history, Indian history, that isn’t something to be proud of at all. Such history is captured in WATER.

Rating: 5 Out Of 5 Stars

Director Deepa Mehta’s final film of her ‘elemental trilogy’, as she calls it, is finally complete and was released in November of 2005. Even before its worldwide release, WATER achieved quite a lot of critical acclaim internationally and made its debut in the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2005. After her first controversial film, and her 2nd addition to her ‘elemental trilogy’ which dealt with pre-independent India, WATER completes the triangle. The first being FIRE, which was a fiery controversy in itself. With the then unknown Nandita Das and the veteran Shabana Azmi in leading roles, FIRE became quite possibly the first of its kind, to be completely refused any and all acknowledgement by the Indian society. Two wives in unhappy relationships, FIRE tells the story of how two women realize that men aren’t their only option when it comes to companionship, and that women can be just as, if not more supportive, caring and loving emotionally as well as physically. This concept of lesbianism which is fact in India, but is considered taboo and ignored by the Indian society, is what made FIRE the controversy that is was. To this day, FIRE hasn’t been released in India, and even in North America most Indian film stores and libraries won’t carry the film for rent, much less sale, as I personally found out. After FIRE ignited the flames of controversy against Deepa Mehta, came EARTH, with the still exclusive Amir Khan and Nandita Das once again. EARTH was also the debut of Rahul Khanna, who will be better known by North American audiences from Deepa Mehta’s BOLLYWOOD HOLLYWOOD. The brother of Akshaye Khanna stepped out into the limelight with this extremely enraging film that delves into the minds and attitudes of the people of different religions stemming the middle classes just months before the Partition of 1947. People who, up until the partition, were all living in peace and solidarity with each other, despite their religious differences and spiritual beliefs. That is until a line was drawn on a piece of land, separating them because of their differences, which caused more than enough bloodshed then, and which continues to spill even more blood today, and also created an even major difference that, since then has evolved and has become the sole factor when it comes to judging South Asian persons by other South Asians to this day… religion.

fter FIRE and EARTH, both being completed within two years of each other and released in 1996 and 1998 respectively, WATER was ready to be made. Dealing with the stories of widows in 1920’s India and the way they were treated, WATER challenged the concepts of religion and society at the time that claimed that women without husbands were worthless in society and should be locked away from the rest of the world, WATER was sure to leave a mark. So, Mehta set to work on her WATER in 2000, complete with the cast of Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and Rahul Khanna once again. But hold on a second, these aren’t the actors whose names are on the top of this review. Let me explain why.

It’s little known, but Deepa Mehta attempted to make this film quite a few years back, in India itself. All pre-production formalities completed, the film began shooting in remote locations of India with the two lead women, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, who had both shaved their heads by the way for the film. But once the controversial nature of the film made their way to the public, religious fundamentalists were extremely shocked and quite appalled at the topic of the film. Fundamentalist Hindus had started protesting on the sets of WATER and it escalated to riots and vandalism as the sets were destroyed, thrown in the Ganga River, and likenesses of Deepa Mehta were being burned in plain view. Deepa Mehta was denied the chance to film WATER, and was more or less kicked out of India for her attempts to do so. But ever resilient, she waited a few years and in complete secrecy, went to Sri Lanka with the new cast of Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas and John Abraham and was able to complete her dream there, which became the WATER that we all now know.

Child marriages were quite common in colonial India, but what were not as common were child widows. Widows then were removed from their lives and homes and placed in Ashrams after the death of their husbands, by their friends and family. Ashrams were more or less a closed off shelter, not too different from orphanages in the States around the same time, the difference being that the residents of the Ashrams were ignored by society. At the time, the worth of a woman was determined by the man in her life, her husband, but if the man was no more, and then the woman became worthless. That was the influence that religion had on society then, not to mention that the laws reflected the same sentiments. So, widows were taken and locked away from society and treated like human refuse. Such was the case of eight year old Chuiyya. Trying to understand her new life, Chuiyya meets various women within the Ashram, with stories of their lives which are similar to hers. One such person who takes to the little girl and becomes her friend is the beautiful Kalyani. Given special treatment in the Ashram because of her… favours to wealthy men, Kalyani befriends the child and helps her adjust to this new environment. While at the same time, Kalyani comes across a young lawyer while bathing in the Ganga River one day. As their romance blooms, the young man stemming from a wealthy background wishes to med the youthful widow from the Ashram. But there has been no precedent on marrying a widow in those times. And thus WATER tells the story of this eight year old widow and her experiences at the Ashram, the people she meets within, and their stories as well.

At eight years, the child actress Sarala does a brilliant job of playing a little girl, who by all means should be scared and completely confused by her new life at the Ashram, but her innocence prevents little comprehension of her predicament. Her innocence is what shines throughout this graphic and very heartbreaking film and keeps one smiling to see such a little girl, who goes through the day with the hope of one day being able to go back home to her mother. Sarala is extremely cute and sweet as she is befriended by Lisa Ray’s Kalyani and finds some sense of normalcy within the cruel Ashram. It’s watching this little girl navigate her way through an intolerable world that makes the climax of this film a lot more effective.

After successes like her debut in Bollywood with KASOOR and the Canadian BOLLYWOOD/HOLLYWOOD, Lisa Ray comes back with her critically appreciated role in WATER. This reclusive actress hasn’t done a lot, but the limited work she has done has been graced with critical and commercial success. In WATER, Lisa Ray portrays the role of Kalyani, one of the widows within the Ashram. Being very beautiful and breathtaking, Ray’s beauty had to be toned down to suit her role. The only friend to Chuiyya, Kalyani enjoyed special treatment within the Ashram. This was because she was being prostituted by the self proclaimed caretaker of the Ashram, a heavier set widow. Since Kalyani’s clients are from the wealthier families at the time, her fees more then helped keep the Ashram running, as the widows weren’t allowed any other sources of income or outside help. As the only friend of Chuiyya’s in the Ashram, Kalyani, ( being very young herself among the rest of the widows in the Ashram who were all ranging from middle age to almost the late 90’s) had also felt her life be enriched by the presence of Chuiyya whose innocence made life in the Ashram a little better. Lisa Ray once again shines in her performance of a youthfully vibrant woman who’s enduring such a humiliating and degrading life. Her soft spoken Hindi coupled with her light eyes proves to be a great asset in a story showing the lives of downtrodden women. A once in a life-time role, Ms. Ray pulls it off with great eloquence. Her scenes with the eight year old prodigy are very pleasant and keep the otherwise intense film very light-hearted.

Now who had thought that among all the other big names in Bollywood, like Amitabh Bachchan, SRK or even Salman Khan, that we would get to see the name “John Abraham” in a film being released in North America. But it’s true; this model turned actor has made an impact in Bollywood over the last few years but has achieved critical international acclaim through WATER. Incidentally, John’s first hit film in Bollywood after Dhoom was last November’s laugh riot, GARAM MASALA. But it’s WATER in which John achieves a lot of depth and reach by portraying the role of a colonial lawyer with Gandhi-an ideals. During a chance meeting, John’s Narayana falls in love with Kalyani. Even the knowledge of her being a widow and selling her body in order to help the residents of the Ashram wasn’t enough to deter Narayana’s intentions of marrying her. Believing in the ideals and convictions of Mahatma Gandhi, Narayana believed that a person should not be judged by their past, hence his love for Kalyani grew even stronger, despite his parents refusal. John gives a wonderful performance as an idealistic and at times naive lawyer during pre-independent India. The restraint and jubilance exhumed by this former model proves just how much he’s grown as an actor in the last few years. His role in WATER being appreciated by critics internationally, John Abraham might be seen in more international projects if he chooses.

The supporting cast of WATER has been very important in pulling off its great dramatic effectiveness. Seema Biswas is incredibly efficient as another widow within the Ashram who’s very compassionate and helping towards both Kalyani and the new Chuiyya. Her role of a reluctant widow with the hope that things may change show the inner conflict that people during those times might have felt, with the way things were changing during the 1920’s in India. Kulbhushan Kharbanda also delivers a great performance, just as before in all his other films with director Deepa Mehta. Being the pundit (priest) Sadananda, he shows how our narrow minded-ness and ignorance to laws and customs that don’t benefit us is one of the reasons that our culture still holds on to traditions that are backwards and at times very inhumane. Waheeda Rehman’s brief role was effective in showing how over protective our South Asian parents end up being.

On whole WATER leaves one with a heavy chest and a realization of some of the darker times of our history. It’s during those times that one feels quite enraged at our South Asian origins. It’s an ominous film that proves how little we’ve achieved as a culture. Personally I don’t consider the fact that the rest of us South Asians being in North America, and having a better education and career here as any kind of achievement as a culture. I don’t consider the fact that our films and movies and songs are progressing and we’re reaching new levels of recognition internationally for our work in the entertainment industry as any kind of achievement. Especially not if back home there are still institutions like Ashrams that are successful in caging up women who have lost their husbands just because the common conception is that without a husband those women are worthless. And these are just all the women that are actually living; I shudder to even get into the hundreds that are killed along with the burning body of their husband which is a common practice in Hinduism known as Sati!

EARTH and WATER of Deepa Mehta’s are must watches to any and all South Asians who want to know and feel a bit more about their origins and culture. Some that I know who watched WATER were enraged because it captured a hateful and disgusting time in our history, and were angry and that aspect of our history being presented to non South Asians in North America. While I believe that films like these should be able to inspire South Asians to overcome and realize our slow progressions out of our primitive and narrow minded history and actually do something to make a difference.

Out of all the films that I’ve reviewed on this website WATER is one that I would strongly recommend to anyone and everyone.

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Shah Shahid

Entertainment Writer | Film & TV Critic | Bollywood Blogger | Host of Split Screen Podcast | Proud Geek Girl Dad


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