Water (2005)

Deepa Mehta's film Water (the concluding part of a trilogy of film that includes Earth and Fire) was apparently an extremely controversial work in India. The accompanying documentaries on the dvd relate the story of how the film was originally mounted for production at the turn of the millennium, but after an early draft of the script was leaked to the local press in the locality where the film was to be shot, with doctored fragments released to the local populace portraying the work as being critical of the Hindu religion, riots ensued that led to the destruction of the sets and production being shut down. The film was later shot secretly in Sri Lanka under another working (River Moon) and with a different cast.

This is the story of Chuyia, a seven-year-old girl who is shipped off to an ashram by her family after the death of her husband. The practice is apparently for Hindu widows to spend the rest of their lives in a state of renunciation, essentially a non-person because they have lost the greater part of their being. That a child should marry an older man was not unusual during the timeframe of the film, towards the end of colonial rule whilst Ghandi's power is about to take hold. As the monastry, Chuyia befriends Kalyani, a young woman who as a child was forced into prostitution to support the ashram. Slowly the dark heart of the place is revealed as Kalyani is offered the chance to leave and marry Narayan (handsome John Abraham), a local middle class Gandhist.

The doubtlessly difficult subject matter is largely handled with much subtlety and delicacy, balancing ancient words against those of Ghandi, amplifying the strengths and weaknesses of each. Which isn't to say that there isn't some criticism of blind faith. One key line spoken by an apparent holy man suggests that removing the widow from a family is hiding a financial decision within religious doctrine. But it is clear to demonstrate that for some, the life in the ashram is seen not necessarily as a burden but a choice, a way of honouring the god's wishes. Water appears throughout, both cleansing and as a source of tragedy when withheld.

The film's key successes are photography and casting. Giles Nuttgens visuals from the opening scenes of Chuyia's family traveling through a verdant green landscape to the many shots of the widows bathing at the river are ravishing; rather than working against the scenery, Nuttgens takes full advantage of it, contrasting the primary colours of the outside world with the drab stone walls and dull white shawls of the ashram. The girl playing Chuyia, Sarala has a depth beyond her years, a respectable part of an ensemble of actors of which the highlights are the luminous Lisa Ray as Kalyani and Manorama as Madhumati the matriach and leader who could the pantomime villain if her actions weren't so despicable. Seema Biswas is worthy of note too - her character, Chuyia's mentor Shakuntala's dark eyes carry the emotional burden of the climax as she realises what must be done.

Opening as a Hindu version of Buddhist Monk comedy The Cup, the film quickly shifts mood to take in a much wider territory of emotion. The economic script is modular - although the story opens from Chuyia's point of view each of the following quarters largely focus on Narayan then Kolyani and finally Shakuntala which means that the context of the ashram and its inhabitants can be revealed carefully if sometimes shockingly. Like a Shakespearean problem play, the predicted plot elements become twisted and present a far more meaningful yet still logical experience. Despite initial appearances, the story that unfolds is not easy, yet rewarding. More importantly it still manages to have warmth and heart even as it surprises.

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