June 15, 2006

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Water (PG-13)
Marriage is a bad scene all around in 1930s India, from your wedding at age 7 to your decades spent in an orphanage-like home for widows in Water, a thoroughly depressing if beautifully shot film.

You know, modern marriage has its difficulties but at least you are not sold into it at the age of 8, as Chuyia (Sarlaa) is. And, should the modern Mrs. find herself widowed, at least she isn't shaved bald and sent to live in poverty, as Chuyia also is in the film's opening scenes. The house is filled with other women, most of them old but a few still in their middle age and younger, who have been widowed and dumped. The women are shunned because — well, because holy writings give some vague direction that it's OK but mostly as a young follower of Gandhi later points out because it's cheaper for the family to get rid of the wife and save money on food and clothes.

Chuyia finds a sympathetic fellow-sufferer in Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a woman who attempts to be devout to her religion despite her skepticism that all this cruelty to widows is necessary. Chuyia finds a friend in Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the next youngest widow, roughly an older teenager or young twentysomething. Her hair hasn't been shaven, in part, we guess, because it helps the household's manager pimp her out to the wealthy men across the river. Kalyani's position as the household's meal ticket allows her her own room, where she even keeps a puppy that Chuyia plays with. Eventually, Kalyani develops her own special friend as well, a wealthy progressive law-student named Narayana (John Abraham), an admirer of Gandhi, a proponent of kicking out the British and a fan of overturning old ways, especially the ways that would prevent from Kalyani marrying again.

This is one of those movies where, every time a character experiences some happiness, you can't help but wince. You just know that behind every brightly lit romp through the village or frolic by the lovely foliage-rimmed Ganges lies some scene of horrible tragedy. And in this Water does not disappoint. But the story is engaging and captivating nonetheless, it pulls you in and never lets overt politics get in the way of the great empathy that you feel for the characters. Even a scene near the end where Gandhi comes to town doesn't pull you away from the specific tragedy of these women. Water beautifully illustrates how colonial oppression in India wasn't just the result of external forces but also came from within. B+


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