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The Independent Critic

Sarala, Lisa Ray, John Abraham, Manorama, Seema Biswas
Deepa Mehta
Rated PG
117 Mins.
Fox Searchlight
 "Water" Review 
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Noted Author Salman Rushdie, no stranger to controversy and extremist fury himself, has noted about Deepah Mehta's "Water" that "The film has serious, challenging things to say about the crushing of women by atrophied religious and social dogmas, but, to its great credit, it tells its story from inside its characters, rounding out the human drama of their lives, and unforgettably touching the heart."

"Water" is a masterpiece. It is a masterpiece of artistry, and it is a masterpiece of humanity. It is a masterpiece of determination, and it is a masterpiece of courage.

"Water," quite simply, is a masterpiece.

Set in 1938 Colonial India during the time of Mahatma Gandhi's rise to power, the story begins with this exchange of words between eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) and her father:

Father: Remember when you were married?
Chuyia: No.
Father: Well, your husband died. You are a widow now.
Chuyia: For how long?
Father: (No response)

Young Chuyia is sent to an Ashram where Hindu widows must live together, identified publicly by their white sari's that segregate them from the rest of society. It is here, based upon ancient Manu texts, that young Chuyia is destined to live out the rest of her life chaste and in a state of self-denial so that she may remain pure enough to avoid a horrid fate upon their death.

Thrust into this community of shunned women, Chuyia bursts into their lives with a determination to "go home," a rebellious spirit that refuses to entirely accept her destiny, and an ever so appropriate childlike wonder and innocence that is utterly devastating and beautiful to behold.

As Chuyia, Sarala offers a performance of tremendous depth, insight, energy and focus. In many ways, she is the core on which the film must build around. A weak performance by this first-time actress and this film would have collapsed. Collapse it did not.

To further magnify the wonder of this young child's (she was eight-years-old when cast in the film) performance, Sarala was discovered in Sri Lanka, where the film was forced to move production following a mob riot by 2,000 Hindu extremists that destroyed its entire set in India. Sarala does not speak Hindi or English, and memorized the script phonetically. To do this, and to do this convincingly is nothing short of miraculous. Sarala's performance nearly rivals that of the young Victoire Thivisol in "Ponette" for its intensity and beauty.

The "system" in which Chuyia now finds herself is a system that even Gandhi himself questions, a fact that is brought forth often throughout the film. Gandhi believes no individual should be imprisoned by their circumstances, and believes in freedom to live and re-marry for all widows. Yet, in this system, the women live under the watch of the Ashram's matriarch, Madhumati (Manorama). Madhumati, known in the community only as the "fat one," runs the community as both Ashram and brothel. With the aide of Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), a eunuch and pimp, she supplies prostitutes to wealthy and respected men, most notably the village's Brahmin (a spiritual leader who is permitted such a privilege under their twisted interpretation of the Sacred texts. It it deemed a "blessing" to the women).

The Ashram's "prize" is Kalyani (noted Bollywood/Hollywood actress Lisa Ray), the only woman in the Ashram whose hair is not shorn. This is, of course, because it makes her more of a prized "whore." Yet, Kalyani is different. She, and her forbidden dog Kaalu, befriend the young Chuyia. Indeed, their hearts and souls sing very similar songs, and the scenes between Kalyani and Chuyia evoke both giggles and tears.

The reason that "Water" is a masterpiece goes beyond the near perfection of its ensemble acting. It goes beyond the miraculous production design, set in Sri Lanka yet remarkably similar to India in visual presentation. It goes far beyond recognizing the courage and conviction of Deepah Mehta and her production's cast and crew. I have enjoyed Mehta's previous films, "Earth" and "Fire," films that both also received much praise and much controversy.

Ultimately, the reason "Water" is a masterpiece lies in the way it interweaves seamlessly the political climate of Colonial India (which is still largely present today) with the religious dominance of a society that uses religion not as a way of being but as a weapon against itself. Then, into this mix Mehta introduces heartfelt, tender, powerful and evocative life stories that bring all of these things to life with dignity, truth and absolute grace.

That Kalyani will begin to question her fate is inevitable. Her meeting Narayana (John Abraham), a man with whom she falls into forbidden love, sets in motion actions that will alter her destiny in ways unimagined. Both Abraham and Ray, Bollywood stars, are utter perfection in their roles as they travel down a road that their culture has forbidden.

If there is, in fact, a cathartic role in "Water" it would be that of Shakuntala Didi (Seema Biswas of "Bandit Queen"). "Didi" is, in many ways, the caretaker of the women at the Ashram. Her many interactions with Chuyia are challenging, funny and tender. Watching her as she attempts to protect Chuyia, indeed, attempting to love her when she has been denied love for so many years is heartbreaking. Biswas is nothing short of brilliant.

"Water" is, quite simply, the crown jewel of Deepah Mehta's career. It is a masterpiece of political insight and human drama. it is a film that will make you think, make you feel, make you cry and make you want to run out of the theatre and fight for the rights of humanity.

Of course, as we all know, Gandhi didn't advocate fighting. He advocated peaceful resistance to the injustices of the world. He advocated love.

Deepah Mehta has shared her love for all of humanity. It is called "Water."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic