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Deepa Mehta’s Controversial Water Revisited



Deepa Mehta's Water

Deepa Mehta’ s Water ,  which  was released on  9 March ,2007, belongs to that rare  category of films that has the power to re-define the parameters of cinema, to re-align the function and purpose of  the medium, and to re-structure the way we, the audience look at  the motion -picture experience.

It’s no coincidence that Deepa Mehta’s heroine is named Kalyani  . Lisa Ray  as the  tragic but irradiant widow seems to echo Nutan’s Kalyani in Bimal Roy’s Bandini.The tragic grandeur that Water wears on its resplendent sleeve is a quality that sets it apart from other   reformist dramas. The film has  a great deal to say about  the  plight of socio-economically challenged women, specifically the widows of Varanasi in the 1930s .

The burning ghats and  the waters that flow from them,  symbolize the ashes-and-embers predicament  of Deepa’s ashram-bound women….all plagued by the pathos  of dereliction , deprivation and yes, prostitution.In telling it like  it is,  Mehta never filches. When has she ever done that?! Her elemental trilogy(Fire, Earth & Water) reflects  a harshly uncompromising  sensibility.

In Water  Mehta doesn’t beautify  the brutality  of  the widows’ existence.   There are bouts  of  humour, dance and music(watch Lisa Ray and little Sarala dance around their dingy room  as the rain splashes  romantically  on the parched streets down below, or the  eruption  of Holi revelry in the ashram). A quality of luminous  lyricism  runs through the narration, specially in the  romantic interludes between Narayan(John Abraham) and Kalyani(Lisa Ray) which are designed like a modern-day re-working of  the  Radha-Krishna mythology.The sheer purity and beauty of  the central romance contrasts tellingly with  the squalidity  of the lives and settings that   the plot negotiates with such slender but deft steps.

Whether it’s in capturing the layer after emotional layer in this onion  of  a drama or in juxtaposing sequences of the shimmering river with the run-down ashram, Giles Nuttgen’s camera  doesn’t flinch from  the beauty  and the  grime. The cinematography could’ve easily converted the multi-layered character-study into a touristic over-view.  Nuttgen takes us  into  the darkest areas of    the human condition  to search  for the peace that prevails under the panic of  existence. And A.R Rahman’s music, his best in  (y)ears, uplifts  the mood of tragic pathos to the sphere of  sublimity.

Many moments in  Water would comfortably qualify as Pure Cinema. That moment when the oldest woman in the ashram devours a laddoo that she had been craving for all  her life could be  seen as  the most  satirically tragic juncture in a film on socio-culturally challenged lives.Water as  the giver and  the destroyer…that’s the predominant metaphor that  cuts through heart  of the fragile but for tale.

Each time we  see the porcelain Kalyani peep out of her dungeon-like window, we know she’s searching for a horizon that most of us never find in our lifetime.

Water contours and defines those glazed regions in our history that we would rather not sharp-focus on. In many ways its depiction of the plight of abandoned widows is a metaphor for  the condition of women across the world, and also a microcosmic view  of  the human condition. In one way or another we are all  persecuted and haunted.

A film like Water comes once in a  while to negotiate  that seemingly insurmountable space between desire and longing, between love and   rituals.  As in all works of true art, no character in Water is big or small.  They  are all played by actors who know  what needs to  be done,  and how  to bridge that gap between delusional reality and illusional artistry. The fine cast grabs your undivided attention. Seasoned performers like Manorama(playing  the head of  the  ashram she’s a conniving scheming farting mass of vulgarity and self-interest), Seema Biswas(clenched controlled conflicted  by  fundamentalism  and  the Gandhian reformist that assails  her  existence) and Raghuvir Yadav(a hoot as a singing eunuch) blend beautifully with the central love story embodied with supreme sensitivity  in  the John-Lisa pair.And to  think that we always thought of John and Lisa as actors incapable  of  overcoming their   inherent urbanity!

It’s Sarala as little Chuhiya whom you’ll find hard to  get  out of your head. She is the most  credible child performer  ,on  a  par with Ayesha Kapoor  in  Sanjay Bhansali’s Black. Normally  children in films respond to adult situations in  an unnaturally knowing way.  Chuhiya remains a child caught in a frightening world of persecution and perversion.Like bolts  of blue feelings , Deepa Mehta inter-cuts the  wretched lives   of  the characters with glimmers of hope.

Even when Mahatma Gandhi makes an unexpected appearance  at  the end the  director doesn’t allow her vision of poetry to be crowded by  postures of polemics.While you grieve for  these  doomed  disintegrating lives, you cannot miss the  subtext of social  reform that underlines their lives. The hallmark of  a true work of art  is the level of  sublimity it achieves in its characterizations while conveying  thoughts on the quality of lives. What Deepa Mehta has to say about  the plight of women in India  75 years ago  remains true to this day. Hopefully  things will change  before another 75 years pass.

Water leaves us with much hope, and some frightening misgivings.

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