I loved it, and saw it on Thursday, the same day it opened in KL. Jayani Sarala Kariyawasam (above) carries so much of the film: it's impossible to take your eyes off her. I believe that things happen for a reason, and maybe the reason why Water
was years in the making was for her; it's difficult to imagine another actor bringing as much to the role. In fact, the cast seems so consummate as a whole that one could almost believe that they were all Deepa Mehta's original choices (they weren't). Seema Biswas shines with a quiet energy, John Abraham convinces us that he's actor material after all, and Lisa Ray in her unthreatening run-of-the-millness nuances a role that someone like Nandita Das, with her personal charm and persona, may have been too overwhelming for.
I'm a big crier when it comes to films, pretty indiscriminately too (I've cried at ones I hated, and not out of passionate boredom or irritation). But I know I've found a film that I will see again, likely many times, when I don't cry at the first viewing. When I want to cry, maybe do a little, but don't indulge myself the blinking. Needless to say, Water
falls into this category.
It's an elegant and understated film and by itself, as a story, it is endlessly evocative. But it is as a polemic that I take issue with it.
Until the very last thing on screen before the credits appear, Water
simply, well, flows. And then it jars. The film ends with text titles referencing the 2001 census figure of there being 34 million widows in India at present. It goes on on to say that many of these widows live under conditions sanctioned 2000 years ago.
How many is many?
I know that women in India's political ranks are no prototypes of the status of the common women of India, but Sonia Gandhi is a widow. As was Indira Gandhi at the height of her career, most of which developed after Feroze Gandhi's death in 1960. Both these women are exceptions in more ways than one: but in a society where the situations portrayed in Water
are the norm, their status/success would have been totally impossible.
The statement with which the film ends suggests
that millions of Indian women suffer today in the cloister of widow ashrams, cannot remarry, were child brides, are forced into prostitution, live lives of privation and must choose only between sati, self-denial or marrying one's brother-in-law -- all by virtue of the deaths of their spouses. For a period piece, a contemporary statistic like that is meaningless, unless it serves to illustrate contrast, likeness or continuity, the last of which is what seems to be the intention in Water
's case. Sure enough, many widows do suffer in India, but chances are they suffer because of general poverty and the human condition, not the very outdated laws of Manu, which in the first place weren't rigorously followed, or even widely-known, until British colonialists decided it would benefit them to reinstate them. Widows in general suffer today just as widowers, the married, and the single do -- not necessarily more and not necessarily less.
What I find most ludicrous on the whole, just as I was appalled to discover about two minutes ago that there is an International Widows Day for the "husbandless"
is this: defining a woman by whether or not her husband is alive is terribly reductionist, and assuming that her suffering is because of this fact is even more so. I know and fully agree that women in India are immensely oppressed. But as women
. Not as their titles as per patriarchal categorization.
As a period piece, the film works beautifully. As a polemic, it not just falls flat with inaccuracy but comes across as extremely manipulative. All well-told stories and all meaningful art are imbued with the power of suggestion: they are potent enough in themselves to inspire the very questions they don't have to pose and the answers they don't have to provide. To have ended the film with Biswas watching that train chug down the tracks of destiny would have been enough: within that denouement is contained past, present and the future that is our
present. Not everything needs to be a goddamn manifesto.
When will we, artists and ambassadors of all kinds, learn that our stories do not always need to be justified?