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Some ciné aficionados may not find Water to be the best film in the Mehta trilogy (Earth, 1998; and Fire, 1996) but it is the most successful yet, both critically and in box-office receipts, at least in Canada, where it was chosen to open the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2005. The press coverage received by the unmade movie since 2000 had assured Water of an initial screening but the acclaim that it has received since was far from certain. However, after watching it, one could not remain unmoved by the touching story told in a sensitive style. From September 2005 till the time of this writing in April 2006, major Canadian newspapers had published over 300 stories mentioning the film. At Canada’s annual film awards, Water racked up nine nominations and walked away with three Genies (see box). It has since been shown in numerous film festivals and won several awards. At the Canadian box office, it is one of the three top grossing films of all time!
Water succeeds at invoking the deepest insecurities we have about privation, circumscribed lives, and loss of control. The story weaves around the centuries-old practice in India of turning women into non-persons once their husbands die. According to the code of Manu, widows have only three choices: burn on the pyre with their dead husbands, live an austere life devoid of any pleasure, or be married to the dead husband’s brother!
Water’s story, written by Deepa Mehta herself, is set in 1938 because she wanted to capture the rising mood of idealism in the country led by that great social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi. In contemporary India, it may be rare to send an 8-year-old widow to an institution but the social condition of widows has not changed that much. It is still very rare for widows to re-marry, especially if they are beyond their childbearing years. The images in Water of women with shaven heads, wearing white, and living highly circumscribed lives, will be all too familiar to anyone who knows India.
What made Mehta take this on? Many years ago, on a visit to Varanasi, while sitting on the ghats (banks of the Ganga) she saw these women. Not knowing about this tradition, she made local enquiries, and the more she learned about these unfortunate women the more she became resolved that she would tell their story. I ask her if she would have made this movie had she lived in India. Perhaps not. The writer V.S. Naipaul has often argued that it is only the outsider who can see things more clearly. Gandhi’s ideas for social and political reform took shape not in India but when he was away in South Africa. Philip Noyce, the Australian, who made the award-winning film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, about the forced removal of aboriginal Australian children from their families, lives in California, not Australia. It would be a fitting tribute to Mehta’s efforts if more Indian filmmakers were to focus on social injustices that diminish life for so many and to which so many of us acquiesce silently due to either ignorance or apathy.
The original cast for the film was to include Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. When Mehta began to re-assemble the cast four years later, people had moved on. This time around she assigned those roles to Seema Biswas (of Bandit Queen fame) and Lisa Ray, who had starred in Mehta’s light comedy, Bollywood Hollywood in 2002.
A CHILD WIDOW
The story revolves around the 8-year-old Chuyia who is roused from her sleep and told that she, now a widow, must leave her own home to go and live in a home for widows in Varanasi.
Seema Biswas, in her role as Shakuntala, is very convincing as she is drawn to Chuyia and becomes increasingly involved as a surrogate caregiver. She conveys her intense feelings without resorting to the melodrama of hugs and tears. This relationship between Shakuntala and Chuyia is beautifully portrayed and filmed, thanks to the excellent communication between Mehta and Biswas on the set. For this role, Biswas gets not only the lead billing for the movie but also the Genie (Canadian Film Awards) for Best Actress.
Water is one of those movies that succeeds as a whole even when some of its parts are not that strong. It is most compelling when it tells the story at a deep personal level. It does not sermonize nor does it divide its characters into good and bad. Even the “bad guys” in this film are true to their circumstances. The “good guys” do not make it either but there is a glimmer of hope at the end. On this faint hope rests the as-yet-undelivered promise of a Great Society. The film rouses us from a collective slumber during which we have become apathetic to even the gravest of injustices in history.
FILMED IN SRI LANKA
Filming a second time around, Mehta took no chances and decided to shoot in Sri Lanka. Sets had to be made from scratch to turn a riverbank outside of Columbo into Varanasi ghats. The effort is brave but for someone like me, who grew up visiting the Varanasi ghats every summer, it was not satisfactory.
An 8-year-old Sinhalese girl, Sarala, who spoke no English or Hindi when cast for the movie, plays a very credible Chuyia. She learned all her lines by writing out the dialogue phonetically into Sinhalese. The young couple, Narayan and Kalyani, played by John Abraham and Lisa Ray, are somewhat muted in expressing their emotions. This is part Mehta’s directorial style that avoids excessive drama, and part inexperience of the actors themselves. The chemistry between the two is mild and Abraham’s sense of loss did not feel very convincing to me. However, all of this is made up by the story, its characters, and the languid pace at which the theme evolves. The cinematographic high point of the film is its lighting and photography for which Giles Nuttgens (of Star Wars fame) won a Genie award. Music for the soundtrack was composed by Mychael Danna while A.R. Rahman did the songs.
Lisa Ray, a Canadian actress of Indian-Polish parentage, speaks fluent Hindi and carries her role well although her character does not say much on-screen. She is a pretty face (mentioned among the “top 10 most beautiful women of the millennium” by the daily Times of India), who has been noticed by critics as well. She was voted “Star of the Future” at the Toronto Film Festival in 2002. Ray was finishing high school in Canada with aspirations of studying journalism when a fashion magazine approached her to model for them. She ended up on the cover, which catapulted her into a state of instantaneous recognition. She did the offbeat Kasoor (2001) for which she received a considerable amount of attention. Mehta then cast her as the lead in the lighthearted romantic comedy, Bollywood Hollywood (2002), which went on to become a big success in Canada. Ray moved to London to train initially, but now calls the city home.
John Abraham was known mostly for his work in the modeling business where he was in high demand before turning to films. He acted in some flops before hitting it big with Dhoom (2004). His unusual good looks come from his Keralite Christian father and Parsi mother. Abraham had to learn to tie a dhoti for his role, among other challenges. But he gets into the role quite smoothly.
One of the stronger performances in the movie comes from Manorama, a veteran actress of the Tamil screen, who plays Madhumati, the acerbic matriarch of the widow home. Manorama has done well over a hundred films (imdb.com lists 134) since she began acting in 1958. Madhumati is bitter and resentful towards everyone—people who did this to her as well as those who live and suffer with her. She has lost the distinction between the victim and the victimizer. Even innocent little Chuyia cannot get her out of her hard-crusted shell. Sarcasm and unprovoked cruelty now form her own shield against the same hurts she suffered at the hands of others. Her character is central to creating the mood of despair around the widow house and Manorama does so from the moment she first appears on the screen right through to the end of the movie.
THE STORYTELLER’S VOICE
Although Mehta has attracted considerable attention in recent years, Water is likely to make her place among leading filmmakers more secure. She has been asked by many (including this writer) about her perspective on filmmaking. In an interview with Jayne Margetts of an Australian webzine (www.thei.aust.com) soon after Fire was released, she talked about her voice in storytelling. At that time she talked about Fire, but it is the same lens that she has used in Water.
“My mother’s arranged marriage and her feelings of isolation moved me deeply as well. Most of my formative years were spent in New Delhi, surrounded by numerous aunts. We women, especially Indian women, constantly have to go through a metaphorical test of purity in order to be validated as human beings, not unlike Sita’s trial by fire. I’ve seen most of the women in my family go through this, in one form or another. Do we, as women, have choices? And if we make choices, what is the price we pay for them?’”
We talk by phone because even though I am in Mehta’s hometown, she is on the road promoting the movie in the United States for its April 28 release. She says that giving interviews about the movie and promoting it is a full-time job. She cannot begin work on her next project until this promotion is over. After the United States she is set to go to Australia where the movie will be commercially released soon. Talks are under way in India for a release.
I ask her if she expects trouble over Water’s showing in India. She hopes not. Some film festivals in India have screened it without any incidents. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saw it at a private screening and he had praise for the film and the filmmakers.
Mehta’s next project is a movie based on the Komagata Maru incident, a shameful episode in Canada’s racist history of excluding Asian immigrants. In the summer of 1914, a ship by that name brought immigrants from South Asia to Vancouver, where it was refused permission to dock despite the fact that people on board were hungry and sick. Eventually, the ship was forced to turn back and many lives were lost. It will be directed by her and is likely to star Amitabh Bachchan, John Abraham, Seema Biswas, Kabir Bedi, and the well-known British actor, Terence Stamp. Mehta fans can look forward to seeing it sometime in 2007.
Anil Verma lives in Toronto and teaches at the university that shares its name with the city.
DEEPA MEHTA FILMOGRAPHY
1. Water (2005)
2. The Republic of Love (2003)
3. Bollywood/Hollywood (2002)
4. Earth (1998)
5. Fire (1996)
6. Young Indiana Jones: Travels with Father (1996) (TV)
7. Camilla (1994)
8. The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles—“Benares, January 1910” (1993) TV episode
9. Sam & Me (1991)
10. Danger Bay—“This Little Piggy” (1989) TV episode
11. Martha, Ruth & Edie (1988)
12. At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch (1975)
1. Water (2005)
2. The Republic of Love (2003) screenplay
3. Bollywood/Hollywood (2002)
4. Earth (1998)
5. Fire (1996) written by
1. Earth (1998) producer
2. Fire (1996) producer
3. Sam & Me (1991) producer
4. Martha, Ruth & Edie (1988) producer
AWARDS FOR WATER
• Bangkok Film Festival: Best Feature Film (the Golden Kinnaree Award)
• Valladolid International Film Festival: Youth Jury Award; nominated for the Golden Spike Award
• 6th Annual Vancouver Film Critics Awards: Best Director of a Canadian Film (Deepa Mehta); Best Performance by an Actress in a Canadian Film (Lisa Ray)
• Genie Awards (Canada): 9 nominations, 3 wins including Best Achievement in Cinematography (Giles Nuttgens); Best Achievement in Music—Original Score (Mychael Danna); Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Seema Biswas)
SHOOTING WATER: A MEMOIR OF SECOND CHANCES, FAMILY, AND FILMMAKING, a book by Devyani Saltzman with an afterword by Deepa Mehta. Key Porter Books (hardcover, 278 pages). Penguin Books India (paperback).
Deepa Mehta’s daughter Devyani was 19 when Water began filming in Varanasi in late 1999. Although her job was to work as a camera assistant, this young woman experienced firsthand the disruption, protest marches, death threats against her mother, and vandalization of sets.
Even as the mayhem raged outside, Devyani was also going through her internal wrenchings of making peace with her mother. When Deepa Mehta and her husband, Devyani’s father, a Ukrainian-Canadian-Jewish man, got divorced Devyani was only 11. She chose to live with her father and was distant from her mother for many years until she sought to repair the relationship and that happened to coincide with the filming of Water. This book is her tale of the intersection of the two events, both political in their own way, but one is intensely personal and the other very public.
Devyani joined the crew again for its filming in Sri Lanka in 2005. This book has received warm praise from many reviewers and is worth a read for anyone interested in Water or in an evocative memoir of a young woman discovering the world and herself.