There are films that entertain you and then there is a film like ‘Water’ by Deepa Mehta which moves you and shames you at once, for belonging to an ethos which conforms to the barabarities portrayed via the story of widows, perhaps sequestering,therefore further criminalised , ages ranging from eight to eighty.
There maybe no answers, but should that hinder us from questioning? Especially in the darkened hall where you are spared looking at another Indian, in the eye. Should we hide these truths about India as we would our personal crimes?
In 2000 when the film had created a stir in the media and in Varanasi where it had caused a few Hindu fundamentalist groups to abort the shooting, one was confused as to whether our loyalties lay with our cultural lineage or freedom of expression which considered the same an anathema.
The politicos had their sway and Deepa was forced to relent. She left the country ironically with a bound script, approved by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but without a single shot canned.
An interesting and informative read by an Australian technician who has graphically depicted the sequence of events from the inception of the shoot in India, the furore and the closure, is almost mandatory to conceptualise the shame Indians refuse to own up to in perpetuating the customs which epitomise corrosive, debasing traditions targetting women in general and widows in particular. The protests did not stem from the urge to eradicate the misery of these forsaken women but from anger at another Director choosing to broadcast the plight of the widows to the world at large.
The film eventually rose to garner its energy, saw completion and consequently, acclaim, having reached the penultimate round of the Oscar nominations. India’s entry ‘Rang De Basanti ‘ failed to make it even thus far. Despite the reckoning that its not advisable to resort to reductionism at such times since apart from sounding cheesy it mocks the majority, yet one is compelled to look askance at law makers, administration of State alongside creative honchos.
The objection by the political party as per the link above was their resistance in showing India in a poor light. Then pray isnt this exactly what was the the core issue of RDB? Was not the inherent corruption at the top most level blatantly expressed? And it did not even have the advantage of hiding behind the screen of ‘aeons ago’ as did ‘Water’ to some extent. It was today and now, the current pathetic scenario of India.. and that was gleefully packaged off in all its glory to the Oscars!!
Baah!! So much for political machinations.
The film opens with an inspiring, imaginative sweeping shot of lotus blooming in a lake, pristine, untouched by the murkiness they arose from. The visual conveyed the sense, unless it was ones imagination lending a poetic configuration. Nevertheless it bespoke of a philosophy that went perfectly with the feel of the film.
India in the 1930’s prior to Independence, when The Mahatama had made his presence and his enigma capture every Indians heart and mind, serves as a backdrop to this tale of widows, who live huddled together in an ‘ashram’ in Varanasi, insulated from the world, deprived and defiled, stigmatised, cursed for having lost their husbands, some even before having seen them and others like the little ‘sarala’ all of eight years old, who had her head shaved off clothed in a white loin cloth and discarded by her father to the haplessness of her situation, resignedly…when she innocently asked of her father sleepy eyed’ till when?’ on being informed that she is now a widow.
At the hands of a less dedicated technician a certain feckless departure or irresponsible additions might have ruined the wealth of detail the film seemed imbued with. Its never an easy task to depict innately sulfurous circumstances with a passive stoicness, which is what Deepa should be credited for.
There is a certain section who has criticised this attempt by slotting it as an uninspiring rendering, boring and staid screenplay. Personally, apart from a few scenes between John Abraham the male protagonist and his friend Vinay Pathak on the ghat, which were heavy with potential in its content but as if scuttled off in a hurried harried manner, the rest of the film was a grave sombre, sensitive, subtle narrative. The pathos was implied, tragedy hinted at, which left one numb and almost wondering ‘ What was the basis of the tradition that thus debased innocents’? Manu Smriti..a much revered and adhered text..a venerated source! Reflection on authenticity and authorship never revealed but hugely suspected to be males thwarted or threatened by female power… What Manu and whose Smriti!! Baah
A shaven head, like a hideous patchwork, clustered mounds of grass on beautiful face of Lisa Ray, resorted to or rather yanked off in symbiotically, implying relinquishing of the right to aspire to dream, either for a man or a life, beyond the hellish precincts of the ashram.. save to serve as a prostitute to wealthy ‘seth’ thereby providing livelihood for the other inmates…are scenes which immobilise you and strike at the inner core, leaving you almost too stricken, even to breathe.By the end of the film, the little ‘sarala’ too was sent ‘across’ to the darkened haveli of a paedophile, since the Lisa ( Kalyani) had chosen to end her life, recourseless, after she realised that her would be father-in-law was the man she had been condemned to serve night after night.
It would be naive and highly dismissive to believe that post Independence situation has taken on a different hue. There are yet thousands of widows all over India, (conservative estimate) destitute, discarded and dismembered from society either forced into prostitution or begging on the streets of Varanasi and other such.
This film serves a cruel reminder that most often it is Society and its rigors which have condemned life no less than a concentration camp for the Jews for a section of its members. The question that arises is ‘Why?’ or ‘Will it ever change?” While the cities, bigger towns can boast of a an altered scenario, yet in households steeped in anachronistic traditions, the whiff of progressive thinking has not come close enough to effect renaissance.
The original cast in 2000 included Shabana Azmi in place of Seema Biswas and Nandita Das in that Of Lisa Rays character. The inherent meat of the portrayals was so imminent that it would have been surprising if the story could have gone wrong,either way.
Yet Seema Biswas as the ‘Didi’ mother like and annapurana’ based role, Manorama as the aging caretaker, who had sanitised her aberrations by a compromised stance, the little Sarala, deserve mention. John Abraham, had little to assay, in terms of dramatics. For whatever his role meant to convey he did, as would any other. Although the other minor characters were so life like, that ignoring them would be blasphemy. But Deepa has won majorly with the aptness and scenes from the peripheral characters.
Cinematography, editing and background score were classy. The technical values in almost every category were above par.
Somehow, one desists from getting critical about the treatment of some scenes which could have benefitted tremendously had the emotion been tapped wholly. There is no debating that for those to who cinema translates into ‘a- laugh- a- minute- riot, or a crescendo of emotions, this film would probably be one which tests their patience.
For some, however, the audaciousness, veracity and almost iconoclastic depictions compells serious viewing and appreciativeness. ..amalgamated with a certain embarassment at being Indian.