Krittivas Mukherjee, Reuters
Mumbai: A controversial Oscar-nominated film about the lives of widows in colonial India, and which outraged Hindu hardliners during its making, has failed to strike a chord among Indian audiences.
Some critics said Water, the story of widows and their exploitation in the past, touched a discordant note with modern audiences besotted with stories showcasing India’s economic success, not its poor and downtrodden.
“Water is refined cinema, but at the box-office the film caters to a niche audience — only those who appreciate quality cinema,” said trade analyst Taran Adarsh.
“This is not a subject that ever can be a popular entertainer.”
Set in the murky widow houses of a Hindu holy city in 1930s India, Water tells the story of their oppressed lives and desire to escape religious stigma through the eyes of an eight-year-old widow.
The women must silently endure a life of begging and prostitution at the “ashrams” or widow houses, considered purgatories for widows whose sins supposedly killed their husbands.
“It’s a beauty, understated and elegantly narrated,” critic Khalid Mohamed wrote in the Hindustan Times. “Its subject of widow rehabilitation could have become mega-melodramatic and sensationalistic in lesser accomplished hands.”
The filming of Water invited trouble in 2000 when angry Hindu groups stormed the sets and issued death threats to director Deepa Mehta, saying her movie was a vulgar denigration of Indian tradition and culture.
After waiting four years, Mehta, who divides her time between India and Canada, shot the film in secrecy in Sri Lanka.
Mehta had expected trouble when the film opened in India this month, but Hindu groups said they preferred to see the film being rejected by audiences.
“Nobody is watching the film. It has met a quiet death,” said Avinash Kumar, a spokesman of Bajrang Dal, a hardline Hindu vigilante group. “Why should we flog a dead horse?”
Water — an Oscar entrant from Canada — completed Mehta’s “trilogy of elements” films that include Earth on India’s partition in 1947 and Fire, a story of female sexuality.
Those films also saw modest box-office collections and Fire drew protests from Hindu groups who objected to it, saying lesbianism was alien to Indian culture.