Sunday, April 01, 2007

Water - Unsatisfying

It took me two viewings to make a definitive opinion about Deepa Mehta's critically acclaimed Water. After the first viewing I was terribly disappointed. This was certainly not the movie I had expected. It didn't engage me, it didn't move me, and worse, it had some glaring lacunae and inaccuracies in the script. Quite a pity, because after Deepa was forced to "abandon" this film way back in 2000 due to the outrageous display of intolerance and anarchy by religious fanatics, I was rooting all out for her to rise against all odds and come up with a fitting reply with a hard-hitting and powerful film. But I still wanted to give Deepa Mehta the benefit of doubt and watched the movie again, just in case I missed the point the first time around.

Sadly, the second viewing didn't change my opinion much. It was still a disappointing film, but this time I could relate to the constraints Deepa was working in by choosing not to shoot the film in India. She had to make some compromises with the setting of the story, which becomes a severe drawback to this new "revised" version,. To be fair to Deepa, there was nothing much she could do about it. The blame for this lies squarely with the right-wingers of our beloved country. Yet, when I sit down now to pen my thoughts about the film, I don't want my opinion to be clouded by the past events. If there are some elements that don't quite gel within the film I must put them across. The blame for that might not always lie with Deepa, but these things severely hamper the quality of the film.

Deepa Mehta's new version gets rid of an important character from her original script – the city of Varanasi. Any film about the plight of widows has to be set in Varanasi or Vrindavan – there's no alternative to that. So when Deepa changed her setting to the fictional town of Rawalpur she lost the essence of the film. It doesn't stop here. While the setting was changed, what she couldn't change was the fact that the town of Rawalpur had the river Ganges running through it. Water – Ganga in particular – is a recurring metaphor in the film and had to stay. The real problem comes when you see coconut trees lining the Ganga, distinctly Dravidian temples and idols in a few important scenes, a town that doesn't quite look like a town in UP-Bihar (the bananas hanging outside the road-side tea stalls is an unmistakably non-North Indian setting). What's unpardonable is that Deepa did not get rid of an important piece of dialogue that clearly talks about Varanasi. In order to emphasize the prevalence of prostitution, one of the characters says,

राँड, साँड, सीढ़ी, सन्यासी; इन से बचो तो भोगो कासी

Quite an interesting and, of course, true way to describe Varanasi, but it had no place in Water since the film was not set in Varanasi.

A subject of this nature definitely requires a director who has more knowledge of India and the Indian ethos than Deepa Mehta. In order to make an effective film, the director has to have a thorough understanding of the background in which the theme is set. Deepa Mehta was born and brought up in India, so I'm sure she knows Hindi, but she has been living away for far too long to retain what she might have learnt during her growing up years in Delhi. Certain pieces of dialogue and the way they're delivered clearly show Deepa's lack of understanding of the nuances of the Hindi language. It's easy to pass the blame on to Anurag Kashyap who wrote the Hindi dialogue or the actors, who clearly don't know the language well, but Deepa Mehta was after all the director! It was her job to correct that.

Let me take one specific example. When the protagonist, Chuhiya (Sri Lankan kid, Sarla, in an outstanding performance), says that she doesn't want to become a widow (mujhe vidhwa nahin banna) it exemplifies her innocence and ignorance about what a widow is – she probably thinks it's a role one plays- likely out of choice. But when an educated character like Narayan asks Kalyani, 'aap vidhwa kab bani' instead of 'aap vidhwa kab huyin', it makes you wince. In Hindi, one doesn't "become" a widow, one "gets" widowed. Only a native Hindi speaker would be able to appreciate the subtle difference between the two words.

There's another example, just before the Holi song we see Chuhiya dressed up as Nand Gopal and a voice calls out – "Chuhiya come fast, you were dressed up like Nandlal for this, not to sulk". Notice the emphasis on 'Nandlal', the right meaning of this line would come across only if the emphasis is on 'this' instead of 'Nandlal'. Again, only a native Hindi speaker would be able to appreciate this.

Here's another example of inappropriate use of language - Narayan's father tells him that he can keep Kalyani as his mistress and can sleep with her as and when he pleases. In Hindi, the dialogue talks about 'sona' which in my opinion is a very modern, literal translation of the English phrase 'to sleep with someone'. I doubt if this phrase had entered the vocabulary of Hindi speaking people in the 1930s.

Lack of a deeper undestanding of the subject lends to some problems in the art direction as well. At many places, we see the appearance of the left-facing swastika on temple walls, etc. While one does find some usage of left-facing swastika in Hindu religious symbology, the swastika in most temples in the North (where the film is based) is mostly right-facing than left. Left-facing swastika is more prominent in Buddhism. Was it the choice of Sri Lanka (a Buddhist country) as the location for this film that led to this glaring error?

Then we have certain historical inaccuracies. Narayan keeps talking about how Raja Ram Mohan Roy is supporting the idea of widow re-marriage. Two problems with that – one, it was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who was the main person behind the widow-remarriage law. Ram Mohan Roy was no doubt a prominent social reformer who was instrumental in banning the practice of sati, but it would be more than 20 years after his death that the widow re-marriage movement would gain momentum under Vidyasagar. Secondly, for some strange reason Narayan always refers to Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the present tense, whereas he had died more than a century before the time depicted in the film.

An element of anachronism also crops up when Gulabi, the eunuch pimp, is shown singing a thumrisaiyan bina ghar soona. The song he hums is from the film Aangan Ki Kali that was released almost four decades later (in the late seventies). I am yet to do some research to check if this could be a well known thumri in the 1930s that Bappi Lahiri took inspiration in the 1970s, but it did seem odd to me in the film.

The biggest problem with Water lies elsewhere though. John Abraham and Lisa Ray are horribly miscast as Narayan and Kalyani, whose love story is pivotal to this film. It is evident that they've worked hard on their characters, but there's no way they can be the characters they're meant to. They're too westernized and contemporary-looking - in terms of their looks as well as their diction – to play a Gandhian lawyer and an illiterate widow from the 1930s. Deepa might have had her own reasons for choosing them, but they surely stand out like a sore-thumb.

All the faults that I've mentioned above can only be seen by an Indian, which is why I wouldn't question why a large majority western critics has given this film glowing reviews (and the film earned an Oscar nomination). The Western audience just doesn't have the wherewithal and the knowledge to judge the authenticity of the film. I must also admit that I wouldn't give these faults much weight for any other film by any other director. But coming from an intelligent film maker like Deepa Mehta this is simply not acceptable.

It's not that Water is a complete downer. It certainly did have many good points. Seema Biswas' performance as a stoic middle-aged widow in the ashram would certainly rank among the best performances one has seen in films of late. She doesn't need words to convey her emotions. Her immensely expressive eyes and facial expressions convey the emotions of her character quite lucidly. It wouldn't be wrong to say that it is she who saves the film. She is ably supported by Sarla, who is quite a find. Scintillating is probably the word to describe her performance. On their part, Manorama and Raghuvir Yadav do complete justice to their interesting cameos.

Water is also very beautifully picturised. The picture postcard look and feel of the film is in stark contrast with the overall grimness of the theme, but works well to highlight the pathetic conditions of the widows. Giles Nuttgen's camerawork is top class with almost all scenes wonderfully lit and composed. Michael Danna's background score is also outstanding - particularly noteworthy are the evocative strains of Raga Kalyani that play as Kalyani (the character) has a tryst with destiny in the final moments of the film. The songs composed by Rahman are real gems and play an important role in defining some crucial moments in the film.

Finally, while I appreciate Deepa Mehta's resolve to get Water made against all odds (it is a story that had to be told), the film left me largely unsatisfied.