Sarala Kariyawasam as Chuyia the child widow

I finally managed to see Deepa Mehta’s Water and I surprised myself by being quite moved by the film which deals with a clash between the tradition of widows being effectively imprisoned for the rest of their lives and the possibility of change in India coming from Gandhian political ideas. The focus of the narrative is a romance between a young widow and a law student and its impact on two other widows. My sense was that, despite the controversy which caused production in India to be stopped and moved to Sri Lanka and the film’s subsequent success in gaining an Oscar nomination, the UK reviews were rather lukewarm. I remember enjoying Fire (1996), the first of the ‘elemental trilogy’, but also finding it a strange Indian/Western hybrid. I’m intending to watch Earth (1998) later this week.

Water, I was convinced, was an Indian film. I didn’t research the film before I watched it so I wasn’t aware that it had been filmed in Sri Lanka. However, I did get a sense during the screening of watching landscapes in South India rather than on the Ganges. Lisa Ray and John Abraham were new to me. I can understand some of the comments about the realism question. Both actors are very beautiful and their parentage (Ray is Indian/Polish and Abraham is Iranian/Indian Christian) means that they look exotic in an Indian setting. But really it isn’t a problem and in a way their casting adds another level of meaning to any reading of the narrative. I was also surprised to be offered a selection of A. R. Rahman songs – but I shouldn’t have been his music is in all three films in the trilogy. At least one song was mixed badly in the film print I watched, but overall they seemed to work.

The big issue, of course, is whether the film works in the same way in the West as in India. On IMDB, the Canadian reviews are generally excellent, partly pride in Canadian Cinema, partly a Western liberal response to the plight of widows in 1930s India, I guess. IMDB reviews and comments by Indians on the other hand are sometimes extremely negative. I attribute this to the obverse of the Canadian response – a feeling that the filmmaker has somehow betrayed Indian culture/is not proud of Indian Cinema, but also from a Hindu perspective, the film is disrespectful of religious teachings. There is a great deal about the controversy over Water scattered across the internet and I don’t particularly want to get embroiled in the politics of Hindu Nationalism. What interests me here is what the Indian critics have to say about the film – as a film. I came across a blog [unfortunately now not available], seemingly by an NRI/desi with deep knowledge of Indian ‘parallel cinema’, that offered a withering appraisal – much of it focusing on aspects of the film requiring cultural knowledge. For instance, the spoken Hindi in the film is ‘stilted’ and doesn’t convey any authenticity. Similarly, the saris are polyester, the taxis in the street are wrong, the costumes are wrong and so is the representation of Gandhi at the end of the film. The blogger is angry with the film on nearly every level, including what is seen as a crass use of quotes from Hindu writings. Overall, the blogger pines for the directors and stars of parallel cinema. Lisa Ray and John Abraham are criticised for their acting. I’m always worried by these criticisms since appraisal of acting styles is often highly subjective. However, I can see that the film would have been very different if Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das had appeared as the two adult widows (the third widow is a child) as Deepa Mehta originally intended. (A report on the original shoot by one of the camera crew is on this Bright Lights Film Journal page.)

I wish my knowledge of parallel cinema was more extensive, but I’ve seen quite a few and Water wouldn’t stand up to a comparison with the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen or of Shyam Benegal. There were moments when the scenario and some aspects of the cinematography reminded me of those earlier films (I think it’s the second film of the Apu Trilogy from Ray, Aparajito (1956) which features the ghats of Benares) but overall Deepa Mehta’s aim was different. Like Mira Nair, she is trying to make films about Indian culture for both a Western audience and a younger popular audience in India. And on this score, according to a number of Indian reviews, she seems to have succeeded. The film is: “Art without being arty, which is truly rare and wonderful” as one Indian blogger puts it. (The comments on that blog post are also worth reading.) This doesn’t negate the cultural criticism (and I did find more) and I think that is a weakness. On the other hand, shifting production to Sri Lanka must have been a nightmare and to manage to achieve what she has in the circumstances deserves support. To attract audiences to a consideration of social issues, even if it involves some misunderstandings is something Bollywood hasn’t managed. Despite the criticisms some Indians seem to have supported Water as an Oscar contender (as the Canadian foreign language entry) over the Indian entry Rang De Basanti – I guess I should see that soon and look at a comparison.