Take a bow, Deepa Mehta.
Deepa Mehta's body of work includes several noteworthy films, notable among them being EARTH and FIRE. But she reaches the pinnacle with WATER, her most accomplished work so far. Okay, WATER didn't really win the coveted Academy Award, but film aficionados have given their mandate, showering it with accolades. That, to put it bluntly, is a far bigger achievement than winning the coveted statuette.
In the past, reputed names such as Shakti Samanta [KATI PATANG, ARADHANA], Yash Chopra [DAAG], Ramesh Sippy [SHOLAY], Raj Kapoor [PREM ROG], Rituparno Ghosh [CHOKHER BALI] and Ravi Chopra [BAABUL] depicted the plight of widows. Sometime back, SHWET - WHITE RAINBOW [Sonali Kulkarni] also revolved around widows and their journey to overcome the societal stigma.
WATER is an exquisite drama that works because it encompasses so much in those 2 hours -- life, laughter, tenderness and tragedy. Despite its simplistic plotline, it manages to stir your soul, grip your heart and transport you to an era which many of us haven't experienced. Also, not once does the film meander into sub-plots or take you away from the core issue. At the same time, it's not preachy, nor does it get melodramatic.
To sum up, WATER is a remarkable piece of cinema. It's a must-see for all those who appreciate qualitative and refined cinema. Without doubt, the final chapter in Deepa Mehta's trilogy [FIRE, EARTH] is her best!
Set during the pre-independence era, WATER revolves around an ashram for Hindu widows in 1930s India. The woman who runs the establishment, Madhumati [veteran actress Manorama], exploits the residents by running a prostitution racket. With the help of a transvestite Gulabi [Raghuvir Yadav], she pimps out the widows to the upper class, so that money keeps flowing in to run the ashram.
Narayan [John Abraham], a Gandhian, falls for the beautiful Kalyani [Lisa Ray], a widow in Madhumati's house. Chuyia [Sarala], an 8-year-old widow and Shakuntala [Seema Biswas], a middle-aged woman are the other residents of the ashram.
Narayan proposes marriage to Kalyani. Kalyani decides to revolt against Madhumati's dominance. Madhumati reasons that they will go to hell if Kalyani re-marries, but Kalyani has already made up her mind. Narayan decides to introduce Kalyani to his parents. But when she spots the house they're heading towards, she insists they turn the ferry around.
Narayan is confused, but Kalyani tells him to ask his father the reason. When Narayan learns that his father had sexually exploited Kalyani, he feels disgusted. The end is tragic: Kalyani commits suicide, while Madhumati and Gulabi pimp out the little Chuyia.
WATER touches your heart on several occasions. The film begins with Chuyia being told that she's a widow and her heartbroken father drops her at the ashram. The subtle romance between Narayan and Kalyani is another interesting aspect. The understanding between Gulabi and Madhumati raises eyebrows. But the finale is what catches you by complete surprise. Kalyani's suicide and the innocent Chuiya being thrown to a pervert shakes you up completely.
WATER is, without a shred of doubt, Deepa Mehta's finest work to date. The director handles the complex relationships with dexterity. Although the pacing is slow, given the theme of the film, not once do you feel uneasy because the drama that ensues has the power to hold your attention. Even the tragic finale has been handled in a classy manner.
Besides, Deepa Mehta raises several pertinent questions through Chuyia. Questions like 'For how long will I be a widow', 'When will I return home' or 'Where do men who've lost their wives go' are brutally honest. Mahatma Gandhi's appearance in the end is another masterstroke. The final sequence, when Shakuntala hands over Chuyia to Narayan, is akin to a ray of hope.
Another remarkable feature is its cinematography [Giles Nuttgens], which captures the era with precision. Surprising, the film wasn't nominated in this category! Dialogues are wonderful. The background score [Mychael Danna] as well as the songs [A.R. Rahman] injected in the narrative are appropriate. However, the film could've done without songs even otherwise. Costumes [Dolly Ahluwalia] reflect the detailing that has gone into the film.
Every performance in WATER is mesmerizing. But the one who really stands out with a remarkable portrayal is Sarala, who enacts the role of Chuyia with rare maturity. She is incredible! Seema Biswas proves yet again that she's amongst the finest talents India has produced in recent years.
Lisa Ray looks stunning as always and emotes with flourish. John Abraham is perfect for the part. Known for his handsome looks all the while, you notice the maturity in his performance in WATER. Manorama returns to the big screen after a long gap and you're bound to hate the lady -- so effective is she!
Raghuvir Yadav is first-rate. Vinay Pathak is believable. Kulbhushan Kharbanda stands out in a brief role. Waheeda Rehman [as John's mother] suits the part.
On the whole, WATER is Deepa Mehta's finest work to date and will win unprecedented critical acclaim in the Indian media. At the box-office, the film caters to a niche audience -- those who appreciate qualitative cinema. Therefore, its business at multiplexes of big cities will be better.
Rating:- * * * * [critique]