Women's Rites

Washington City Paper | May 4, 2006
Groups of women confront the unjust systems constructed by men in both Water and Free Zone, films directed by an Indo-Canadian woman and an Israeli man, respectively. Though the movies are similarly didactic, they employ different narrative modes: While the women in Water eventually blossom from symbols into characters, the ones in Free Zone just become more and more metaphorical as the story unfolds.

After an opening title that presents ancient Hindu teachings on the proper behavior of wives and widows, Water introduces an unlikely example of the latter: chubby-faced Chuyia (Sarala), who’s only 8 but has been married to a man she doesn’t know. Informed by her father that she’s now a widow, Chuyia asks a reasonable question: “For how long, Papa?” The unspoken answer is “forever”—or at least until the Raj or reformers led by Gandhi can change the law and, more important, the customs that hold widows to be impure. It’s 1938, and change seems to be in the air—but not at the shabby ashram where Chuyia’s family discards her. Ruled by fat, foul-tempered Madhumati (Manorma), it’s a place where close-cropped widows of all ages simply wait to die.

Chuyia soon meets the one exception, lovely Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who’s allowed to keep her hair long and live apart from the others. Forced to prostitute herself to support the other women, Kalyani is ferried nightly to the mansions on the other side of the river by Madhumati’s broker, the eunuch Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav). Chuyia and the innocent-despite-it-all Kalyani become allies and are soon befriended by Narayan (John Abraham), a handsome young man from a wealthy Brahmin family who prefers Gandhi’s message of equality to his father’s life of idle privilege. Entranced by Kalyani, Narayan proposes marriage, which scandalizes both the residents of the ashram and his own family. As Kalyani and Narayan’s relationship plays out—not auspiciously, of course—another widow, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, star of the controversial Bandit Queen), takes it upon herself to rescue Chuyia. The youngest widow’s ultimate fate is not revealed, but she might be the only person in the ashram to escape the prison of Indian widowhood.

Water is the third in writer-director Deepa Mehta’s Elemental Trilogy, following 1996’s Fire and 1998’s Earth. All have women at their centers. And all mix elements of tragedy, melodrama, and the Indian musical. As if to temper her criticism of Indian society, the director periodically interrupts the action for enchanted moments, including a celebration of the Hindu festival of Holi, in which even dictatorial Madhumati temporarily finds her inner child. In another digression, Kalyani and Chuyia go dancing in the rain while someone off-camera does the singing. The playful asides, lush cinematography (by longtime Mehta collaborator Giles Nuttgens), and, especially, Ray’s glamorous presence all brighten the film’s dark story a little too effectively: When Madhumati reacts angrily to Kalyani’s engagement, hacking off her hair in a scene that’s supposed to be disturbingly violent, the new cut just makes Ray look more like the sleek fashion model she used to be.

Of the trilogy’s three films, Earth is the richest, perhaps because it’s the only one Mehta didn’t write from scratch. (It’s also the only one that emphasizes India’s religious diversity, with significant Parsi and Muslim characters as well as Hindus.) Water is more akin to Fire, which also attempted to balance crowd-pleasing musical numbers and comic bits against provocations aimed at the more hidebound Hindu. Although so controversial in India that it still lacks a distributor there, to American audiences, the film offers an entirely innocuous agit-prop thrill. Kalyani seems fundamentally untroubled by her sexual subjugation, Narayan is blandly noble, and every piercing development is quickly disinfected by a pleasant song or picturesque image. Celebrating women who reject a system that seems beyond Western understanding, Water is too smitten with local color to render its widows’ plight as universal.

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100