Water, the third number in the "Elemental Trilogy" of writer/director Deepa Mehta, will be screened this weekend at the Winona Film Society, the last of their fall offerings. This is a beautifully made film, touching on several important matters, resonating with the viewer well past its end. Surrounded by controversy while it was being made, the movie forces us to confront uncomfortable truths.
Set in India in 1938, the story takes place largely in an ashram for widows who have been forced, given their society's tradition-bound mores, into an existence they characterize as hell, or a half life. Ancient law decrees that the wife must either throw herself on her dead husband's bier or retire from the world to live a life of chastity, supporting themselves by begging.
We are brought into this unnatural world via a young girl, Chuyia (Sarala), who is forced into this life, uncomprehending that this will be her lot, thinking her parents will come for her. She is disabused of that hope by the ashram's servant, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, in a wonderfully complex role). Shortly thereafter, Chuyia is befriended by Kalyani (the luminous Lisa Ray), a young beauty whom the head of the ashram, Madhumati (Manorma), has sent off to various men as a prostitute, telling her that her earnings are crucial to the place's existence.
When a young, well-to-do law student, Narayan (John Abraham) accidentally meets and is smitten by Kalyani, the Romeo and Juliet story at the heart of the plot is set in motion. But their star-crossed lives intertwine with others, Mehta skillfully opening up the single relationship to comment upon liberation"”of women, of the nation, of the self. Water becomes not only a repeated and beautiful background for the action but a rich symbol"”of cleansing, of vitality, of death.
Those who know even a little about Hinduism will appreciate the references to various beliefs and taboos Mehta works in, giving the story a further dimension. But that knowledge is certainly not a prerequisite to understanding and enjoying the film. Mehta sets the action against the broad social changes embodied by Mahatma Ghandi, whose appearance at the story's end gives it the only hope of redemption.
Water is rated PG-13, appropriately. It's in Hindi, with English subtitles, and the film's soundtrack features excellent Indian music, played on sitar, tabla, and other traditional instruments. At its close, we are told that, as of 2001, an estimated 34 million widows in India included many who lived as do those depicted in the story.
Water will be screened on Friday and Saturday nights at 7 p.m. and on Sunday at 8 p.m. All screenings are at the Winona Arts Center, located at the corner of East Fifth and Franklin Streets; admission is $6. Desserts provided by the Blue Heron Coffeehouse are available for purchase.