by Sonia Chopra
Cast: Seema Biswas, John Abraham, Lisa Ray, Manorama, Sarala, Raghuvir Yadav, Vinay Pathak, Meera Biswas, Waheeda Rehman
Direction: Deepa Mehta
The film doesn't waste too much time. The first frame, a quote from Manu Smriti, about how widows must live their lives, gets you angry enough at its audacity. A few minutes into the film, and you are introduced to Chuyia, an eight-year-old child widow played by wondrous actor Sarala.
When the news is broken to her, that she is now a widow, Chuyia, unable to understand the gravity of the situation, casually asks – `for how long?' She is abandoned by her parents at the widow's ashram, headed by matriarch Madhumati (yesteryear actress Manorama).
Through the eyes of this little girl, we are introduced into the world of the widows and their ashram. Bald, all wearing soiled white sarees, the women are grim and toughened by life, and your heart aches for Chuyia who must make a life here, for no fault of hers.
She befriends young, beautiful widow Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who pays the price of being attractive and is forced into prostitution by Madhumati. In the cold, strict corridors of the ashram, the only other person who warms up to her is Shakuntala (Seema Biswas).
A woman of few words, she's more the doer than the talker and turns out to be the most memorable character of the film. When Kalyani comes and asks her what she must do, when she falls in love with Narayan (John Abraham), Shakuntala prefers to remain non-committal and neither encourages nor discourages her.
It would be unfair to give away what happens further in the story, but rest assured that it makes for a very moving drama.
What's most absorbing about this film is the various levels it works on. It is at once a tender love story, an eye-opener to the unjust life widows are subjected to, or even a discerning look at India in the time of Gandhi, where there was severe cynicism to his ideals. It's masterful how director Deepa Mehta manages to dwell on all these stories within stories, entwining them into one.
To speak about Water and not speak about its cast is impossible. Mehta deserves an award just for bringing this cast together. Where does one begin – the little girl Sarala has given this endearing and heartwarming performance without knowing a word of either Hindi or English; Manorama who makes a comeback on screen after 18 years, and whose rendering of Madhumati, the cruelest, most corrupt character in the film is a delight.
John Abraham surprises with a restrained performance and Lisa Ray too is impressive, though her dialogue delivery is not yet a hundred per cent fluent.
Finally, this film belongs to Seema Biswas – she plays out her character of a quiet, yet strong woman, broadminded yet unflinchingly believing in rituals, to perfection. It's little wonder she has already picked up an award (she won the 2006 Best Actress Genie Award) for her performance in the film.
Each character, regardless of screen time makes an impact, like the eunuch played by Raghuvir Yadav, so nonchalantly cruel; the old widow in the ashram, probably 80 plus, who yearns, even in her sleep, for a laddoo; the slightly broad minded priest played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda; Narayan's mother played by Waheeda Rehman, and his friend played by Vinay Pathak.
Technically, this film is flawless. The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens (who also shot Fire and Earth) makes you wish you didn't blink, catching the reflections off the still water, and the hint of tears in Shakuntala's eyes with equal precision; music by AR Rahman stays with you long after the film is over. Other aspects like sound designing, production quality is top-notch.
There are very few films, even those made on issues, that move you enough to want to know more. Water is such a film – though it talks about the `30s, the fact remains that such ashrams, exclusively for widows, still exist.
And after seeing this film, you want to visit these places and see for yourself if time has brought about any changes in the lives of widows and how so. And if a film can move you do that, then its success is bigger than any award.