Advocacy and art -- how does a filmmaker fuse the two? How to deliver a clear argument without sacrificing the ambiguity, the authorial humility that thought-provoking art demands? Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta relies on a triad of techniques -- an embrace of mythic scope, finely wrought personal detail, and political clarity.
It's a difficult balancing act -- and Mehta's latest film is unfortunately one of her least successful. The last of the filmmaker's “Elements” trilogy, Water takes on the plight of India's widows, as illuminated through a story of forbidden love. Mehta aims for the epic with the film's backdrop -- it's set in the late 1930s, when the hope of Gandhian reform was sweeping the nation -- and her ardent use of hyper-romantic Bollywood conventions.
A worthy cause, a worthy filmmaker, one much celebrated for her cinematic skill and her dedication to women's lives and social justice. So why does Water fall flat?
It's not for lack of a powerful beginning. After a sleepy, dreamlike journey, 8-year-old Chuyia (Serala) makes a shrieking entrance at an ashram for widows. The young girl doesn't understand that the women here will be shut up in the ashram for the rest of their lives. Under strict Hindu traditions, a woman is considered only half a person after her husband dies -- this belief, coupled with families' desire to rid themselves of an “unproductive” mouth to feed, gave rise to widows' cloistered lives.
With her hugely expressive eyes, Chuyia shakes up the ashram -- and makes a perfect vehicle for Mehta's art-house activism. A vibrant child who delivers a sweet to a dessert-craving widow auntie -- who can argue that her fate is fair?
But Mehta isn't content with only one heartbreaker. She then begins to unfurl a tale of taboo love between Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the ashram's most beautiful widow, and a glowingly rendered law-school graduate, Narayana (John Abraham), who is also a Gandhi devotee. As if a romance between a widow and an upper-class Brahmin wasn't fraught enough, Mehta reveals that the monstrous boss lady-cum-madam of the ashram regularly pimps Kalyani out.
Mehta hasn't lost her iconic sense -- her lovers are silhouetted against a midnight sky, sing out their hopes Bollywood style. But her treatment renders them nothing but flat shadows in one scene, posed mouthpieces in another. We have little sense of who these characters are as actual people. Narayana's politics don't seem rooted in his psychology -- indeed, there doesn't seem to be enough of his psychology in the first place, and he becomes just a paper prince. Without a sense of the particular behind his politics, Mehta's attempt to parallel the widows' plight with India's struggle against colonial powers seems like a lazy grab at thematic resonance.
The film seems all the more disappointing in terms of what Mehta's done in the past. Fire, the first film in her trilogy, wove together a haunting relationship between two women, a feverish storyline from the epic Ramayana, and a clear-sighted portrayal of the ways sexism oppresses both men and women. The relationship between the two women evolved with an organic sense of pace and personality, and the film was leavened with mordant and satirical humor. The result was deeply moving -- the climax of film was a shattering convergence of Mehta's themes, a love story fueled by passion, fierce social critique, and the grand dramatics of an ancient epic.
Mehta tapped forbidden love again to make Earth, which drew on a tragic Hindu-Muslim romance to probe the historical wound of India's 1947 partition, in which 1 million died in the violent process that created separate Indian and Pakistani states. But in a case of diminishing returns, the romance that was supposed to personalize the tragedy seemed flimsy and contrived, its symbolism too easy.
Water echoes those problems -- but it's also burdened with a political backdrop that increased expectations of the film. When Mehta began work on Water in 2000, she met with fearsome opposition from Hindu fundamentalists belonging to the powerful Bharatiya Janata Party. Fake scripts fanned dramatic protests: A for-hire suicide attempter “drowned” himself, Mehta was burned in effigy, and screaming crowds eventually burned down the film's sets, the director told an audience at the February Bangkok Film Festival. Mehta left the project to work on other films, but took up the helm again four years later, when she moved to production to Sri Lanka and completed shooting.
The film's back story clearly point out the relevance of Mehta's film -- even if, frankly, it seems more interesting than the film itself. Water isn't a complete loss, of course. Mehta has a deep understanding of the way widowhood functions in society -- what dark ulterior gain it brings. When she steps back and creates a complex, conflicted character, the results can be breathtaking, as in the case of Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a fiercely devout widow who begins to question the justice of the women's fates. Shakuntala is the true heroine of the story -- watching her dashing to the train with a precious burden, her face ablaze with terrified hope, is an indelible example of the power of Mehta's approach. The character is a poetic reminder to artist and activist alike -- that humanist endeavors are nothing without the fully considered humans they claim to serve.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.