When I was in film school, I remember a professor showing an Indian film called "Panther Panchali". Despite the terrible print, I could see director Satyajit Ray was an artist. "Panchali" is a beautiful film about a poor Indian family living through the monsoon season. I then went on to discover some of his other films. A couple of years ago, Merchant Ivory hosted a retrospective of Ray's films and these restored prints are available on DVD. You are depriving yourself if you do not watch these films.
As I watched "Water", the new film from director Deepa Mehta, I was constantly reminded of Ray's films. The composition, pacing, subject matter and acting style are all the same.
Chuyia (Ronica Sajnani Sarala), a seven year old girl, finds she has become a widow; her arranged husband has died leaving her adrift in a society that favors men. Religious law dictates if she lives a chaste life she will join her husband in heaven. Of course, she doesn't know or understand any of this when her family takes her to a home, to live with other widows. She soon meets the matriarch of the house, Sadananda (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a fat woman who eats the most food, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a bitter woman who shows some compassion to Chuyia and Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a young woman who is allowed to grow her hair out and meet `clients' to help support the house. Soon, Chuyia meets Narayana (John Abraham), a bachelor from a rich family who is instantly attracted to Kalyani. As their relationship grows, there are murmurs of Gandhi leading the Indian people to independence from Britain.
Deepa Mehta has crafted a beautiful film depicting a sad reality in India's history. As one character states, families used this religious practice to free themselves of a financial burden and another mouth to feed. In this belief, there are three ways of dealing with a widow; marry her to a younger brother of the deceased male, have her join her husband on the funeral pyre, or banish her to a house to live with other widows until she dies and rejoins her husband in Heaven. Of course, if a wife dies, the husband is free, encouraged to remarry. After Mehta establishes the details of this practice, she introduces us to the main characters, the people who will inhabit the story we are about to watch. There are people from every generation in this house; "Auntie" is an elderly widow who still dreams of the sweets she had at her wedding, when she was seven, Sadananda seems to be a gang leader, or pimp, sending Kalyani out to meet married men, to help support the house and her eating habits. Sadly, every generation is represented.
The growing relationship between Kalyani and Narayana is very believable and touching. Indian tradition and the difficulties of Kalyani's position dictate they must behave in a certain way. But Narayana is a modern Indian man and he soon tells his mother he and Kalyani will be married. When his mother finds out his intended bride is a widow, she is shocked and won't allow it. But Narayana has no doubt that he will wed his lover, all it takes is some convincing.
As the story moves towards its emotional climax, Shakuntala becomes the voice of reason. She helps Kalyani get out of the house to meet her lover and eventually helps other members of the house.
Mehta composes every shot with a painter's eye. Vivid colors poke out throughout every frame, colors so bright they appear to be painted on the screen. As we watch these characters struggle to live in the house, they make infrequent trips outside to bathe, walk, and experience. Inside the house, everyone wears a sari made of the same natural cloth and everything is rather drab. But as they explore the neighboring community, we see women wearing bright saris, vivid flowers and bright gold, copper and silver. The difference between the two worlds is very noticeable and helps to contrast the living conditions of the two different groups.
Ray used the same attention to detail in his films creating beautiful compositions in black and white.
Both filmmakers chose similar subject matter. Like Ray before her, Mehta has chosen a fairly simple, straight forward story. Because the story doesn't have a lot of distractions, it allows you to concentrate on the characters and give them your attention. The actors provide vivid, interesting portrayals that compliment the story.
"Water" is a very good film. Search it out and you will be rewarded.