foreign films

Made in: India, Sri Lanka (location), Canada
Language: Hindi
Director: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Lisa Ray, Sarala Kariyawasam, John Abraham, Manorama, Seema Biswas
Year: 2005

Synopsis: The year is 1938. Mahatma Ghandi has arrived, and is about to begin his campaign of non-violent resistance against British colonial rule as well as ancient Hindu traditions that oppress the impoverished and powerless.

Forced into an arranged marriage at the age of eight, Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam) finds herself a widow when her husband dies of an illness. Being from a highly orthodox Hindu family, Chuyia is sent to the holy city of Banaras to live out the rest of her life at an institution for widows, known as a widows ashram.

With her head shaved, the only thing she and the commune of other widows can look forward to is a life of hardship and self-denial. They sleep on the floor, are given only one meal a day, and are often treated like lepers by everyone else in society.

The institution is run by Madhumati (Manorama), an old, corrupt, and abusive widow whom the rebellious Chuyia detests immediately. Her only allies are the tough, reserved, and enigmatic Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray).

Although religiously devoted, Shankuntala's compassion for Chuyia causes her to begin questioning the validity of their treatment. Kalyani, valued for her beauty, is allowed to keep her hair but is forced into prostitution in order to provide money for the institution, as well as Madhumati's hash habit.

Things get interesting when Narayan (John Abraham), a young, educated Brahman falls in love with Kalyani. Although he is from the highest Indian caste and very wealthy, Narayan is also a devoted follower of Mahatma Ghandi.

Sincere in his belief in reforming ancient but oppressive traditions, he plans to whisk Kalyani away to a better life in Calcutta. But Kalyani realizes that she's "worked" at Narayan's home before for none other than Narayan's very own father...

Remarks: Water is a very moving and realistic-looking film. Full of subtleties, director Deepa Mehta really gives us an up-close look at the many layers of social injustice (particularly against women) during this time period. But part of the film's purpose is to let us know that some of these inhumane practices still exist today.

It should be noted that extremist groups tried to disrupt the production of Water, and at one point even burned down sets and issued a number of death threats. Fortunately, Mehta was able to complete the project by moving the production to Sri Lanka.

In the form of a love story, Water addresses many themes, such as social/political commentary and human nature. Neither preachy nor heavily ideological, Mehta introduces compelling heroes and villains from all walks of life.

The movie's messages are not too difficult to figure out, and the film's greatest strength comes from the way in which they are filmed and presented. Mehta is an expert at subtle delivery, leaving the mind of an active viewer to do the heavy lifting when processing the emotional punches.

Who would like this movie: Water is for you if you're already a seasoned viewer of foreign films, and if you have an interest in social justice issues. Although it's not a hard movie to understand, it's one that calls for you to be in the mood for more serious subject matter.

(3 stars out of 4)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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