Friday, July 21, 2006

On water , the freedom of expression and then what a brilliant movie it was


With blogspot urls being blocked in India, I've been off blogging and reading blogs for a bit. It just makes you realise that the internet isn't necessarily the free democratic belonging to all space that you conceive it to be.
Talking of freedom of speech makes me want to write about Water a film by Deepa Mehta who was forbidden to shoot it in 2000 in Varanasi when people burnt the sets and threatened to kill the Canada based Indian film maker.
The film is about the lives of a group of widows in the 1930's. Hindu widows had to renounce material comforts, shave their head and were even forbidden from eating sweets and fried food.
This was the period when the freedom movement was gaining momentum and Gandhi was just entering the political scene. The story is told from the perspective of Chuyiya a 7 year old girl. In the first scene we see her, young and innocent, a girl with long curly hair chomping on a piece of sugar cane as the bullock cart rattles its way along.
In the next scene, perhaps the most poignant in the movie, she is woken up by her father who asks her if she remembers having been ,married. She says she didn't. Her baba tells her that she is a widow now.
'Till when..?’, she asks, shrugging off sleep .


Chuiya is taken to an ashram for widows where widows renounce all worldly pleasures to live a life of austerity. The youngest girl in an ashram where very old women have been living since childhood, Chuiya is rebellious and child like. The realities sink in only later.
A child has not yet been conditioned to settle in the niche that a rigid society has reserved for her; she responds instinctively , intuitively to situations. For instance she asks the Hindu priests where male widows went and this is blasphemous to the women who have been conditioned from birth to LIVE for the male. They pray that such a fate never befalls their men and she is accused of uttering inauspicious words. Whether its revenge towards the bossy Madhumati or thoughtfulness for the very old widow whose only desire in life is to eat sweets that she has been denied from the time she was widowed as a child , Chuyiya's response is natural and spontaneous. The child's voice is the rational , unbiased voice.
When she first comes to the ashram , she harbours dreams of returning home but later she realises she can't. She befriends Kalyani (Lisa Ray) who is pimped by the leader of the ashram ,Madhumati (Manorama) and is the only one who is allowed long hair.

Narayan , an idealistic law student enters their lives and falls in love with Kalyani.

He is Gandhian and wants to work for the emancipation of widows. Talking of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and admitting to his conservative mother (played by Waheeda Rehman) that he wants to marry a , god forbid, Widow ....does he succeed?
His progressive father supports him but is he really that progressive?
Child abuse in the movie is portrayed realistically , without the drama. Chuiya enters the room saying ' I've come to play'. And it breaks your heart.

The situation of widows in India has improved in the last 70 years or so and a majority of widows don't have to live seperately in ashrams.
As Narayan reasons in the film , it was never about relegion , it was about money , about having one person less to feed in the household. Shakuntala(Seema Biswas) who has led the life of a ‘good widow’ wonders what to do if her faith clashes with her conscience. The characters are important in raising different questions. The rich bramhin male , the pious widow , the child , the educated idealist, the prostitute , the male priest.
He says that there is a new law that has been passed about widow remarriage. When Shakuntala asks him why she doesn't know about it he says that laws that aren't in tandem with religion are ignored.

I don't however think that the argument that portrayal of India as a backward, primitive culture to draw western audiences holds good as this person thinks so.

Please listen. If a widow remains a pure widow, she is respected. If she wants to lose the respect, she can remarry. Nobody goes and burns a widow if she remarries. But if she wants pleasure, naturally she will have to give up name and opt for pleasure.
Does an average Indian woman have an option?
Who prevents her? Tell me.’

Sure , there is technology ,IT , the booker prize , path breaking research in every fuckin field there is but isn't that a small part of the population?
Isn't there hypocrisy as well? The biotechnologist mother and the software engineer father still want to abort a female foetus. It is the same patriarchy that ostracized widows , that murders baby girls , that made a girl’s marriage more important and her Phd not at all.

Water has some brilliant performances. Sarala who plays Chuiya was amazing and surprisingly even John Abraham sheds his glamorous image to do a brilliant job. Lisa Ray is a tad too anglicized but she does a decent job but Nandita Das would have been better.Seema Biswas is good too.The cinematography is lovely with locales in Sri Lanka where Mehta has tried to recreate Varanasi.

You have to watch the movie..It stays with you.


Ruchika said...

Hmmm.. wasn't really planning on watching the movie, but now I think I must!

Brandon said...

I like what you said in the beginning about the Internet not being as free as we are led to believe. Same way with America - we are not nearly as free as "they" would have people believe.

Y? said...

@ ruchika : you should but i forgot to add that the titanic type music used at some parts was irritating
@brandon: aah! valuable quote from an american. :)