™ & ©2005, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.
Lisa Ray and John Abraham in Deepa Mehta’s WATER.

I was born in Hisar, India, 32 years ago. My parents were six when Lord Mountbatten declared India’s independence from the British empire. What I remember of my place of birth is limited to a trip back with my mother and sister in 1985, as I was less than two years of age when we left for the United States. The India I remember most is from centuries of cultural history shared with me from my parents. Neither I nor they were alive in 1938, the period in which Deepa Mehta’s controversial film “Water” is set.

Chuyia (Sarala), not even ten years old, was to be married but her father informs her, coldly, “Your husband is dead. You are a widow now.” Chuyia, clearly at this age not even yet aware of the finiteness of life, asks, “For how long father?” According to at least some interpretations of the Laws of Manu, ancient Hindu scriptures, widows are forbidden to remarry. So, Chuyia is to become a sanyasi, renouncing all desires—in essence a nun. She is given to the care of an ashram.

While Chuyia appears to be the center of the story, she is only a catalyst to bring your attention to many layers of a questionable practice. The old aunty Patiraji (Vidula Javalgekar) can barely stand and possesses the mind of a child. She longs for nothing more than a ladoo, a ball of flour with sugar often fried in ghee. Madhumati (Manorama) is the fat, crass mother figure to the sanyasis. Thankless, lording over her fiefdom, she orders the others around to maintain the ashram while she is waited upon hand and foot—caring only for her parrot Mitthu. Like Mitthu, she views the inhabitants of the ashram as her caged pets, in a way. Without her, she imagines, they would not subsist.

The angelic voice that calls Chuyia upstairs distracts her from this surreal and depressing existence. The young, beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) has secretly kept a puppy, to Chuyia’s delight. She seems to be the only one who understands and commiserates with the child. While Kalyani seeks refuge in the teachings of Krishna, not far from the Ashram a young student, Narayana (John Abraham), finds strength and comfort in the philosophy of Mohandas K. Gandhi. He sees the hypocrisy in between the lines of tradition. Incidentally, and unintentionally so (Mehta states this hadn’t occurred to her at the time), the name “Narayana” means “moving water”–historically a force of change in the evolution of civilization. As his name implies, Narayana is a catalyst for progress in the Indian collective consciousness.

Narayana’s parents want him to continue his studies, but his heart is in the inspired philosophy of Gandhi. The bespectacled, handsome young lawyer to be catches the little puppy when it runs away one day, and crosses paths with Chuyia and Kalyani. But this is a superstitious world they live in. Narayana can no more touch Kalyani than an untouchable’s shadow can touch a bride. His mother would not approve of it, but his scholarly father appears to be progressively-minded.

It’s important to note, however, that the movie is not primarily concerned with the budding Cinderella story between Kalyani and Naryana. In fact, in a recent interview with the director, Mehta, I came to understand how the story is actually about Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), an elder sanyasi. One day she goes to consult Sadananda (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a Brahmin. He asks if she feels she is closer to moksha, liberation of the soul. She replies, “If self-liberation means detachment from worldly desires then no, I am no closer.”

And this is the theme of “Water”: The conflict between one’s religion and conscience. I find it interesting that the Laws of Manu, a set of guidelines for living, were written roughly 3500 years ago. With the epic Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, the teachings of Kapila (whose poem “Meghdoot” is referenced in the film) all written in the centuries that followed, Hindu philosophy has been constantly evolving. Yet it is often the case that townspeople, especially in remote villages, fail to recognize this. More importantly, the whole of Indian government fails to understand this aspect of Indian history. India’s government must approve every script for any film that is to be shot within its borders. In the case of “Water,” permission was granted but locals protested the controversial topic. Sets were thrown in the river or burned, and Mehta received numerous death threats. It took Mehta another four or five years to regain the composure to resume filming, this time in Sri Lanka. This is not the India I grew to appreciate.

Unquestionably what thrives in Indian cinema is the conventional Bollywood song and dance, which is essentially no different than the escapism of the American blockbuster. It’s the crap that floats to the top. But a handful of directors like Mehta ask the challenging questions, and it’s unfortunate that very few of them receive international distribution to a wider audience that might appreciate the totality of India more so than the shiny veneer that is authorized by the government as the “official” but false artistic expression of what, who and how India is.

Gandhi, as the Pandit says, is one of the few people who actually listens to the voice of his conscience. I’m reminded of a scene in Peter Brook’s TV adaptation of the stage play based on Viyasa’s epic poem Mahabharata (“The Great Story of Mankind”) which is the central scripture of “modern” Hinduism (by “modern” I mean the last thousand years). Bhisma, a warrior, asks Krishna why he cannot interfere with the outcome of the great battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Krishna asks what if the preservation of dharma (the order of all things) required the destruction of mankind? Likewise, perhaps the preservation of dharma invokes the necessity of change.

Insofar as the film is about the difference between right and righteousness, several examples of hypocrisy become exposed. I won’t reveal them all, but one has to do with the way Madhumati facilitates the upkeep and resources of the ashram and its residents. It’s antithetical to their purpose, to say the least.

The movie begins and ends with vibrant colors to imply life, as opposed to the lifeless grey interior of the ashram—ironic in that it is supposedly a spiritual sanctuary. In reality it is a prison. The score is exceptionally sparse, allowing the characters and images to speak for themselves. The cinematography is unfettered by pseudointellectual ambitions. Instead, the camera observes the daily life like a good documentary photographer. When Aunty is describing her wedding, full of spreads with rasgullah and gulab jamun (teeth-decaying but joyously sugary sweets), you’re an observer to a real dialogue and not merely a viewer in an audience watching a scripted drama and plot unfold.

Its only weakness, I think, is its ending. While the rest of the film to that point has been entirely straightforward in execution, the conclusion at the train station adds an element of unnecessary melodrama. By the time Shakuntala gains the courage to embrace her doubts the film has already made its strongest point. But these are minor concerns in an otherwise well-conceived, well-executed film. I also give them exception because I think of it as rather remarkable that a director in the current social climate of India can get away with as much as Mehta did. I’m not overlooking the ending, merely suggesting that the rest of the film is such a big step in the direction of sincerity that it’s as much as I can expect Indians to accept at this point in time. To go further might risk alienating audiences entirely with a message they aren’t ready to swallow. Still, I would caution the director to trust her own intuitions next time and fade out where it seems most natural to do so.

Shakuntala is, more or less, Mehta herself. Having moved to Canada from India in her twenties, Deepa Mehta is the product of two cultures—as am I. The third in a trilogy of trenchant examinations of convention, “Water” looks candidly inside the proud soul of India with sharp scrutiny and skepticism. There has always been a peculiar disparity in the post-Vedic henotheism of Hindu philosophy versus the conservative and misogynistic politics of India—but it’s an issue that thrusts many Indians outside their comfort zone. Those who have the ability to see India from both sides of the fence know that the appreciation for diversity of philosophical introspection has given way to technological, financial and material preoccupations, and this is an unsettling reality for us to swallow. If India is to survive the adolescence of its independence, it needs to be unafraid to embrace, analyze and deconstruct certain aspects of its past—however discomfiting they may be.

What else is a culture but the sum total of its evolutions of thought, art, expression? If we continue clinging to the oldest ideals, forgetting what’s happened in between then and now, are we really honoring everything that culture has to offer? Are we respecting ourselves and our capacity for both rational thought and aesthetic appreciation? Like “Sophie Scholl” this is a timely lesson for Americans, especially, who have been barraged with phony attacks endorsing borderline theocracy as a salve for our own paranoias. As the Pandit keenly observes, “We ignore the laws that don’t benefit us.”

Water • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Running Time: 117 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexual situations, and for brief drug use. • Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

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