Thursday, September 27, 2007
Water by Deepa Mehta is a beautiful film. Set in India in 1938 we follow Chuyia, a child bride who becomes a widow as her parents inform her. Chuyia, who barely remembers being married, is taken to an ashram (a place where widows live out the rest of their lives) by her parents. As tradition dictates, Chuyia's head is shaved and her colourful saris are exchanged for a plain white one thus visually identifying her as a widow, an outcast, someone who is already half dead. While Chuyia reluctantly learns about her new lot in life, she meets Kalyani. Kalyani stands out amongst the widows with her own room, her hair in tact and there seems to be some hope expressed in her eyes. We learn that Kalyani is being prostituted out, taken across the water at night where she is the mistress to an upper class man. When Kalyani meets a young idealist, a follower of Gandhi, the story reveals itself to really be about two "star-crossed lovers." This film is a Romeo and Juliet set within the changing political environment of 1938 India. In Water the two feuding families of the classic R & J story are the two classes represented in the film. While the film does focus on the love story, it is predominantly through Chuyia's eyes that we experience the world.
The life inside the ashram is fairly grim since these are condemned women. Outside of the ashram people fear if a widow's shadow grazes them they too will be cursed. They are ignored, forgotten and unloved women. Kalyani's forbidden love causes a storm that sets the tragedy in motion. For Chuyia her youthful spirit brings an energy to the interior of the ashram that we sense has not been there for quite some time. While it is Kalyani's desire that disrupts the norm, it is Chuyia's presence in the ashram tradition that initially stirs up the staid life of this society. She questions and fights. She even bites and in her youthful innocence defying the traditions refusing to adapt to what she sees as an illogical life. What the film is suggesting is that tradition acts as a mask for an oppression of women, saying that it is not tradition that causes women being viewed as unimportant and second class to men, but rather a society dominated by a patriarchal upper class, one that determines the rules that includes the view of women as second class. When Chuyia asks, "Where do the male widows live?" there is a collective gasp from all the widowed women as they mutter things like "What a horrible thing to wish upon our men."
Water is obviously a central motif. The camera water as life and it is presented at moments to remind us of renewal. Sins can be washed away and our thirst can be satisfied. Water can transport us and it can also take life from us. It is central to the life of the community and it is one thing that everyone shares and has in common. Each person comes to the banks of the river to be cleansed even if it is for different reasons the desire is ultimately the same.
I kept missing opportunities to see this film (as I often do) on the big screen and it really is unfortunate that I did not see it in the theatre because Mehta works with a fantastic cinematographer (Giles Nuttgens) that brings light into such a dark place as the ashram is. Visually this film is remarkable. The stillness of the shots allows the scene to dictate how we see the story unfold. In fact, the emotion and content of the scene seems to dictate how the camera views the (in)action. I draw attention to this because often in film our eye is led by the camera choice. Water is an example of a film that does not let the camera shape the story. Instead it works with light and dark to highlight areas of a scene while the drama unfolds for us.
If you haven't already seen this film, I highly recommend it.