Water opens with a beautiful little Indian girl sitting on the back of a cart joyously chewing on sugar cane. She has luscious hair, pinchable cheeks, dark eyes, a nose-ring and tinkling silver anklets. (So cute; Madonna would kill for her.) A middle-aged man is on the cart, too, lying on his back and groaning. He is her husband and he dies. We don’t know how long she has been married for, or even if she’s had time to register that she is actually married, but now she is a widow and, as her father tells her, she must now lead a widow’s life. ‘For how long?’ she asks. She is eight years old. She has no idea that she is about to be cast off into the most excruciating, lifelong limbo.
This is a promising opening to a film that sometimes fulfils that promise and sometimes doesn’t; that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film but lost out — rightly — to the much surer-handed Pan’s Labyrinth. Yes, this film has something to say, not just about Hindu fundamentalism, but probably about all religious fundamentalism, which dehumanises and ostracises women in the most startlingly inventive ways, but a good film and an honourable message are not one and the same. True, it has to be better than an entirely empty-headed, badly bloated pile of trash to do with Pirates and the Caribbean, and at least it is that. It must matter, too, at some level. Although this film is set in the 1930s, when the director, Deepa Mehta, started filming in India in 2000, Hindu fundamentalists stormed the set and burned it to the ground (in the end, she decamped to Sri Lanka). However, Mehta, who also wrote the screenplay, allows all her moral indignation to not so much drive the film, as distract her from it.
According to the Law of Manu (a sacred Hindi text): ‘a widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste’, although, when it comes to ‘chaste’, this rather depends on who needs what from whom, as we shall see. So the little girl, Chuyia (Sarala), has all her hair shaved off and is sent to live in a makeshift ashram with 14 other shaved widows, all disdained by ‘respectable’ citizens and treated as social lepers. Chuyia doesn’t understand the change, of course, just as she doesn’t understand the concept of ‘forever’. Her parents, she tells everyone, will be coming for her ‘tomorrow’ and she carries on believing, even though she is told her life is over, that: ‘a wife is part of her husband while he is alive, and when husbands die, God help them’. Consider your heart well tugged.
She initially causes havoc. She bounces and fights and is impish in ways that can, at times, veer into Shirley Temple territory. She backchats the self-appointed leader, the brutal Brian Cox lookalike Madhumati (Manorama) and is called ‘a little bitch’ by the mean-faced Kunti (Ronica Sajnani), whose name has yet to catch on in the West. Most important, she meets the lovely young widow Kalyani (Lisa Ray, named ‘one of the top ten most beautiful women of the millennium’ by the Times of India), who has been allowed to keep her hair because, at night, she is shipped across the river to work as a prostitute, earning money to support the ashram and keep Madhumati in dope. Chaste for whom? like I said.
When Kalyani attracts the attention of Narayan (John Abraham, apparently ‘India’s highest paid supermodel’), a well-heeled Gandhian Brahmin fresh from law school, the second main plot is established and here it all goes awry. Abraham and Ray carry on as if they’re moonlighting from Vogue, which they probably are. Wooden? I’ve met chairs with more life. They just can’t step out of their symbolic roles to become real people, even for a moment, and, worse, Abraham is used for the worst kind of exposition, the sort that treats the audience as having the IQ of an omelette. Probably, I do have the IQ of an omelette, but it’s always more flattering when film makers affect otherwise.
In the end, Water is too much of a compromise. A compromise between, perhaps, shocking the West with the subject matter — a eight-year-old widow! — and going for a popular Indian audience who will demand Bollywood romance. I don’t want to discourage you from seeing this film. It is a heart-tugger and I do think you’ll get something from it. But, in the end, it’s just too meek. The trouble with Water, when it comes down to it, is that it’s just too watery.