Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Watery Waste

Perhaps the only positive thing I can say about Deepa Mehta's Water is that it provoked me to list in painful detail all of the reasons I did not like it - that is possibly a better reaction to a movie than to have walked away to get dinner started and not been able to recall the name an hour later. Since the negatives are abundant, I will start with the few saving graces. The opening scene with an adorable girl wearing a nose ring and anklets chewing on a stick of sugar cane. She has not even had the time to register that she is married when her father tells her she is now a widow. She asks him "For how long ?". That was a beautiful and promising opening - except for the disproportionately strong sitar background music.

Mehta as is evident throughout the movie does believe that less is more at least in editing. Chuhiya, the child widow turning hysterical as she refuses to accept the status-quo of widowhood is portrayed very well. The only other plus that comes to mind is Raghubir Yadav in drag though its amazing how little Mehta could make of his prodigious acting abilities. Why is the Hindi so stilted one wonders the minute the characters start to talk ? It does not belong to any part of India. Is this a bilingual movie ? Once you get past that annoyance it dawns on you that the cast is about as professional as a group middle schoolers on their first theatrical production. They shuffle around like a bunch of unsynchronized puppets completely devoid of facial expression.

Our generation came of age along with the second wave of parallel cinema in India. A thinking person's cinema was made by the likes of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalini, Sai Paranjpye and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. We have seen poverty, corruption, casteism and a plethora of other ills that ail Indian society depicted with gut-wrenching realism - Paar, Arth Satya, Aakrosh, Mirch Masala come to mind immediately, but there are so many others.

Anyone who has watched the pregnant Shabana Azmi and Naseruddin Shah herd their cattle through a river in spate in Paar has been forced to confront truths about India that they may have been in denial of. That is perhaps the role of a movie that purports to bear a social message.

Watching the expressionless John Abraham woo an equally bland Lisa Ray with verses from Meghdutam is a slap on the face of the destitute widows of the early 1900s, who were often forced into prostitution just to have enough to eat. With her unflappable serenity, au natureil makeup and gym toned body Lisa Ray makes widowhood of the 1930s look quite desirable. Mehta does not manage to provoke any visceral reaction from her audience. The music is too loud, often too modern and almost entirely out of synch with the situation at hand. For her, there are lessons to be learnt about an effective background score even from The Tiger and The Brahmin

Quoting from Manu Samhita out of context is a time tested way to horrify a Western audience and gain credibility as an authority figure on all things Hindu - Nirad Chaudhuri had always done it with great success, Mehta borrowing a page from his book is hardly surprising. Manu did not exclusively prescribe restrictions on widows and remarriage, he also laid out very meaningful laws for an ideal society in which no one group was completely disenfranchised.

As with any law, the interpretation by those in power left much to be desired and the widows of pre-independence India were one of its many victims. That said, Mehta's depiction of Manu Samhita as the binding religious sanction for the atrocities perpetrated on Hindu widows shows a very crude understanding of the religion. Manu Samhita is not the Bible of the Hindus. This set of rudimentary edicts, is hardly the entirety of Vedantic philosophy and cannot serve as its proxy.

That Mehta would not have an eye for detail should be expected by now. We see women dressed in garish polyester saris in the 1930s along with taxi cabs. The crowds are uniformly accoutered in spotless white complete with Gandhi topis. There is no space and time transportation - realism at any level is clearly not a priority. This is the cinematic equivalent of serving a half cooked food to dinner guests - unpardonable carelessness.

She is also historically inaccurate in her depiction of Gandhi, but westerners would not recognize Raja Ram Mohan Roy quite as easily so I guess it is okay to swap their places in history. The fact that the story suffers from factual inaccuracies is not such a big deal. One is willing to view it as a work of fiction, perhaps a director's spin on a certain zeitgeist or even rewrite history for art's sake. All of that is perfectly acceptable if indeed it results in a work of art and not in such an immature abomination of it.

So when Time calls this movie a "Triumph" and Ebert and Roeper give it a "Two Thumbs Up" one wonders if they are being condescending or merely facetious. Surely, they cannot be serious. The only other possibility is that the leading lights of Indian parallel cinema did not go nearly as far as Mehta to pimp their work, country and culture to the west and in as such never saw their movies make it to an influential western reviewer’s "to-review" pile. The loss is as much theirs as it is ours.

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