Let’s say you are standing in a queue for a bus ticket. It’s a long line and you finally get to the counter – almost. There is one person ahead of you who, annoyingly, is just not behaving like the others; i.e. – handing out change and buying the tickets. She is asking questions - about why they are charging more than the regular fare, why the coupons don’t reflect the price she is paying, who decided the hike in the rate…basically, why things don’t add up.
Meanwhile, you get impatient and tap your feet. You wish this person would sort out her issues elsewhere, some other time.
But the thing is that the issues this person is sorting out are not hers alone, they are yours as well. You just don’t know it yet.
Deepa Mehta’s ‘Water’ somehow evokes such impatience with its pace but only until you grasp just exactly where the story is going.
The story is set in 1938. An 8 year old girl, Chuhiya, is married off to a sick man. On their journey across villages, the man dies and Chuhiya is left a widow. As per the ancient code of Manu, she must now live in penance in an ashram in Varanasi.
In this widow ashram, the rubix cube of questions, despair, shackles, and redemption shifts.
The ashram houses widows who have been forsaken by their families after their husbands’ deaths. Most come in as children and live out their entire lives there.
When Chuhiya is brought there, she harbors the naïve hope that her mother will come to get her someday. This wait for the tomorrow that’ll never come is something most of the widows are familiar with. They look at this little, feisty girl benignly. In turn, she amuses them with her antics (when she bites the ankle of a portly head honcho). Sometimes she alarms them (when she asks where the ‘male’ widows live). But, one by one, they all come to accept and love her the way people who’ve been given up on come to love children – despite themselves.
One of the first people that Chuhiya meets is a steady, somber Shakuntala (Seema Biswas). She is the tough cord of the ashram that holds the eccentricities of old women and foibles of a naughty child together. Then Chuhiya meets Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who is a beautiful widow. She is the only one in the ashram whose head is not clean shaven. Both become fast friends when Kalyani presents Chuhiya with a black puppy, Kalu.
One morning Kalu escapes from the girls and vanishes into a busy market. Chuhiya chases him and bumps into Narayan (John Abraham).
As events come to pass, Narayan falls in love with Kalyani and for the very first time, Kalyani wonders if she may have a life other than what she is bound to. However, individual desires must be confronted with steady, social opposition. Although widow remarriage is being proposed by reformists such as Gandhi and Raja Ram Mohan Roy, it is clear that not all individual lives will be affected by them. As with all good policies, there is a limit, initially, to how far public good will percolate. The lives of the widows in that ashram are still beyond reach.
There are also chilling, lurid references to the hypocrisy regarding widow’s status.
When Narayan first tells his parents of Kalyani, they recoil at the blasphemy. Later, we come to know that while widows are supposed to renounce the world, they are sometimes used to sate its most base instincts. As Narayan’s father explains: if a Brahmin sleeps with a widow, it is only she who benefits. It matters not if it is without her consent, whether she is as old as the man’s daughter (as was Kalyani) or whether she is only a child of 8 years (as was Chuhiya).
In the morass of religion, tradition, and impending reform, ‘Water’ tells the story of lost innocence and its germane dimension – hope.
To begin with, ‘Water’ is a beautiful film. Scenes seem to be sequences of portraits. It is a uniquely colorful film even though the most pronounced backdrop is the white of a widow’s sari. The other hues are mainly blue – cyan, Prussian, azure, midnight, peacock, Cerulean, indigo. One breathtaking scene is of John Abraham waiting for Lisa Ray by the river. The lake is the color of Krishna tessellated with the ivory shimmer of John’s kurta and his flute.
There is also the Holi sequence where literally, the dreariness of the ashram explodes in colors. Chuhiya looks very fetching as a young Gopi and there are smears of violet, vermilion and turmeric on wrinkled faces and shorn heads.
Sometimes, the light from unadorned diyas by the Ganges looks extravagant enough.
Coming to the actors – most of them are perfectly cast. Chuhiya is such an endearing little cherub. One spends much of the time wanting to cuddle her and pinch her cheeks.
Lisa Ray is positively luminous. She literally glows as if there is some sort of gleam coursing through her veins. With her clean, heart-shaped face, so uncomplicated and serene – she looks like a pretty, crystal, prayer bead. In fact, that child-like peace in her expressions lends a solid credence to the character. It is quite difficult to imagine anyone else in her part.
John Abraham isn’t too bad. He looks, I think, his best in this movie and there isn’t any of that annoying swagger.
And then there is Seema Biswas or the actor who can do no wrong. As Shakuntala, she is fearless with faith. Her role in the film is, in many ways, resonant of the widow’s struggle in India – silent, but not mute.
The master of ‘Water’, though, is Deepa Mehta.
Much of the film’s accomplishment is in what it’s not – a maudlin weep of the plight of widows or a superficial statement on Hindu mores or an angry tirade against the dichotomy that is India. (And Deepa Mehta had a lot to be angry about. She was stopped from shooting for the film in Varanasi despite obtaining the required permissions. The film was later shot in Sri Lanka.)
Personally, I find restraint a commendable trait. And ‘Water’ has it. If something can go without saying, Mehta has let it. The dreariness of the widows’ lives doesn’t hit you so much when you see them in their austere garb and shorn heads. It hits you when a woman simply says that the last time she had mithai was at her wedding, when she was 9 years old. She is close to 90 now.
Or when John Abraham asks Ray what is the first color she will wear after she gets married. (She has spent close to 15 years wearing white.) ‘Kanhaiya neela’, she answers.
The glaring divide between a man’s India and a woman’s India is not portrayed through any dramatic juggling of scenes. It’s in a quiet conversation between John Abraham and Lisa Ray. John tells Lisa that India is changing. Lisa asks, ‘Really?’
Strangely, the most heart-wrenching moments are not in the depiction of penury, exploitation, or death. It’s in showing a little girl, running around barefoot, happily, slowly forgetting that she will never see her mother again.
It’s in seeing her being promised a boat ride and some halwa puri. It’s in her entering a dark room and looking for treats. And the final dose of disgust is in seeing a man reclining in the shadows and watching her with interest.
The hugeness of societal reform is not in the rising background score when Gandhi is addressing a huge throng. It’s in a frantic Biswas handing over an abused child to the Gandhians (John is one of them) in some kind of simple faith that they will take care of her.
Then it’s in her waiting for the train to disappear and finally, turning back.
It’s not an ordinary storyteller who knows not only how to tell a story, but also when to end it.