The third of Deepa Mehta’s trilogy—a tender, visually stunning ode to an ugly social taboo—has a few peripheral parallels with Rob Marshall’s Oscar-nominated film of 2005, Memoirs of a Geisha. Both films were shot around the same time—in California, Marshall’s team recreated 1930s Kyoto and, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the team of Water brought to life the Varanasi of 1938.
Despite vast differences in looks (Memoirs of a Geisha, far more lush, with that unmistakable big studio stamp), both films are set in times of political turmoil—Japan on the verge of the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 and India galvanized by Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas about freedom. Both films are also brilliant commentaries on the way the two countries thought of their women, the opening scenes in both being that of a pre-pubescent girl being dragged out of her home and being taken to places where their destinies are supposed to be played out.
The similarities, however, end here. After sitting through Mehta’s film about widows in Varanasi—hair shaved, and closed, in every sense, from the world outside—one is left feeling annoyed and frustrated. That is the film’s biggest achievement.
The year is 1938. Gandhi’s battle for freedom and against oppressive Hindu traditions is gaining ground. Chuiya (Sarala, a Sri Lankan child artiste), an eight-year-old girl, is widowed and is forced to live in a house for Hindu widows, run by 70-year-old Madhumati, the house matriarch. Also in the house are Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), caught between the hopelessness of her situation and her devout adherence to Hindu scriptures, and Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a worshipper of Lord Krishna by day and a prostitute by night for the rich gentry in the village across the Ganges. Narayan (John Abraham), a lawyer, is a follower of Gandhi and lover of Kalyani.
He defies tradition and continues meeting Kalyani until a fateful night when they both realize that he is the son of the man Kalyani is ferried off to sleep with every night. Is Kalyani’s redemption and Chuiya’s escape possible? The end is emotionally convincing.
But the real impact of the film comes from the layered characterization. Madhumati’s sadism is punctuated by her tragic yearning for life outside the dark house—every night, she lies in her room, smoking ganja and listening to the latest gossip in town from her only friend, Gulabi, a eunuch and pimp. Chuiya secretly fulfils the desire of one of the oldest widows in the house—to eat the forbidden mithai. The film isn’t without its preachy moments, but its lyricism overwhelms those.
Lisa Ray, as the stunning, innocent Kalyani, is not effortless, her Hindi is laboured. John Abraham brings out the dignity of his character with surprising restraint and Sarala, as Chuiya, shines. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography is one of the film’s biggest triumphs. Having shot all three, he threads Earth, Fire and Water into a trilogy. Robust browns framed the first, and hues of red the second. Blue and green are his tones for Water. The camera moves rarely, lending the film its cold, static feel.
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