Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 22, 2006 6:54 pm 
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Social criticism, history, romance, tragedy -- lite

Mehta’s Water, currently being well received by American art house audiences, is another in her series of historical films (Fire 1996, Earth 1998, now this, but with love comedies in between including Bollywood/Hollywood) which paint with broad strokes and surging music key moments or aspects of modern Indian history. This one concentrates on the custom of following ancient Hindu law requiring widows to, as is helpfully explained to us by a religious man and student of the scriptures in the film, either die in suttee, on the funeral pyre of their dead husband; go into an ashram -- here, into a temple near the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi -- and live there till death; or marry their husband’s younger brother. Our film focuses on the second alternative, confinement to an ashram. Despite the fact that even in 1938, when the action takes place, there was a law (news to the ladies of Varanasi) encouraging widows to remarry, Mehta tells us in end titles that many widows are still confined today. Mehta struggled against losing odds to make this film in India and the shoot was completed in Sri Lanka. There are criticisms of the authenticity, but this necessity must be kept in mind.

Mehta’s broad strokes are pretty strokes. She begins with an appealing child widow, a girl of seven called Chuya (Sarala) who doesn’t even know she was married but is shaven and shut into an ashram with older women when her old husband dies. The shaven widows are a mixture of crones and suffering sisters who’re given clear-cut distinguishing traits. They’re not Dickensian grotesques but are lightly comic – though they can turn nasty just as they can suffer. The other main character is a beautiful woman named Kalyani played by Lisa Ray, an actress born in Canada; Indian viewers have said her Hindi is stilted-sounding, and indeed most of the dialogue is. Kalyani has been working as a prostitute to help support the ashram, the lone member of the group allowed to wear her hair long -- a decline in tradition having apparently led to less charitable support of such a place. Kalyani's a dead ringer for Jennifer Connelly and, despite her recent background as a call girl delivered by rowboat, has eyes as pure and bright and innocent and starry as a child's. Along comes a young well-educated man of rich family, Narayan (John Abraham), the actor 6’1’, broad-shouldered, and wearing wire rimmed glasses that make him look even more like Gregory Peck than he does already. But he doesn't get to do much acting: he's Gregory Peck as Indian supermodel (which Abraham in fact formerly was); and though he's seen shaving, he's fashionably grizzled. He goes about in dhoti and long exquisite pale blue shirt, the kind of impeccable loose garments that show off a physique by slightly hiding it. The saddest thing is how emotionally stunted the women are. A toothless old crone known as "Auntie" (Vidula Javalgekar) dreams of nothing but the buttery, sugary sweets she ate at her wedding when she was a young girl which now she is forbidden to have. But the film isn’t stingy about offering us its own bonbons.

As in a Bollywood musical, Narayan and Kalyani set eyes on each other, music plays, and it’s instant love. We know Narayan is going to rescue Kalyani, but it turns out not to be so easy. There are various times when you expect the actors in Water to burst into song, and perhaps dance – odd in a film about very grim conditions. In the background news periodically comes in of the emergence of a national savior named “Gandhiji,” who’s imprisoned by the English and then released. Mahta excels at grand climaxes and this one has a tumultuous, cathartic finale that includes Gandhi and a railway station. Viewers of Mahta’s 1998 Earth won’t be likely to have forgotten the train massacre during the India-Pakistan war of the late Forties and it’s hard not to be swept away by some moments in Water, but you might want to try. Its approach to events is simplistic and saccharine and is more on the level of a novel for young adults than mature historical fiction. Music is a little too helpful. Flute-playing and poetry-quoting are too-glib romantic devices. One has the sense that the filmmakers are playing to a western audience, even though they’re close to Bollywood traditions. This is more sophisticated than popular Indian musical films, but if you compare it to Sajayit Ray it’s sadly facile stuff. Perhaps people would like the History Channel to be like this, but if it were, it would betray its historical function.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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