It is safe to say that opinion on the final film of writer-director Deepa Mehta’s “elemental trilogy” has been divided. On the one hand, when Water first started shooting, Hindu fundamentalists destroyed its sets and burned the filmmaker in effigy. The Indian government withdrew its support and the production promptly shut down; Mehta had to wait four years, recast, relocate to Sri Lanka and start over. On the other hand, now that her movie is in wide release, American critics have tended to adore it.
Makes sense. Like Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), Water is an agitprop melodrama, and therefore rather as fashionable in today’s America as it is provocative in India—which, with respect to the egregious social marginalization of women that this movie decries, hasn’t changed nearly enough since the late ’30s. That was a time, Mehta asserts, when Hindu orthodoxy held widows in even worse esteem than second-class citizens; they were financially burdensome pariahs. The widow’s options in 1938 were these: Be burned to dust along with your husband on his funeral pyre, marry into his family another way if they’ll have you, or remain cloistered, chaste and impoverished in a prison-like ashram for the rest of your life.
Water begins as the eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala), already widowed before she can even understand being married, gets stuck with option three and immediately recognizes its cruel absurdity. Predictably, Chuyia’s innocently willful response electrifies the ashram’s other widows, most notably the pious, spiritually searching Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the lovely Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the one woman in the group not required to shave her head—if only because their churlish house mother (Manorama) regularly pimps her out to the Brahmins across the river. Kalyani is so stunning a beauty (Ray has been called the Indian Angelina Jolie) that the movie becomes oddly deferential to her as soon as she’s introduced, taking pains to set her up in what amounts to a perfunctory romance. Before long, a meeting is arranged—courtesy of Chuyia, also predictably—between Kalyani and the law student/Gandhi enthusiast Narayan (Bollywood superstar John Abraham). He’s handsome, gentle, available, forward-thinking on widow remarriage, and flawless in just about every other way, too.
The point is well-taken that many movies made by men have trapped many women in one-note placeholder parts like this, so maybe it’s fitting that the tables be turned. But Mehta apparently hasn’t thought to make that point; she plays the Narayan-Kalyani romance too sweet, too simple and too straight. In a film whose explicit theme is a refusal of repression, it’s one of a few unwarranted detours, neglecting the narrative potential Mehta has established with the juvenile and functionally irrepressible Chuyia, and with Shakuntula, who in the end must make one brave, adult, anti-repressive choice. That’s where most of the story should be. Mehta’s sappy, Bollywoodized add-ons may be intended to make her message more palatable to mainstream audiences. But given the reputation for controversy that already precedes her, what’s the use of deliberately watering Water down?
Of her trilogy, the filmmaker has said, “Fire was about the politics of sexuality, I guess. Earth is about the politics of nationalism and Water is about the politics of religion.” By politics, she means the way tradition can crush individual fulfillment, particularly for women. It’s as worthy a grand subject as movies can take on—which is why those movies mustn’t falter in respecting the intelligence of their audience.
This isn’t to say that an aggressively feminist film can’t also be stirring—or, for that matter, beautiful to behold, as this one often is: Mehta and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens work nimbly with a palate of cool hues (save for a few deliberately vivid exceptions) and flowing, nearly imperceptible movements. Mehta also has spoken of, and demonstrated, her debt to Satyajit Ray, the titan of India’s lyrical humanist cinema. To be fair, few have that master’s easy grace, but inviting the comparison doesn’t do Mehta any favors.
Certainly, she has vision and a voice; she’s on to something with the analogy between British colonialism and patriarchal Hindu fundamentalism. But by tempering political assertiveness with mawkish indulgence, Water puts viewers in the strange position of feeling inclined, on account of their newly raised consciousness, to rebuke the film for its own melodramatic shortcomings. Well, it’s better than burning down the set.