A little girl is awakened by her father, who asks if she remembers getting married. She says no. Anyway, her father says, her husband is dead. She's a widow now. "For how long?" she asks, but she doesn't get an answer. Her father can't bear to tell her that she'll be a widow for the rest of her life.
This is India in 1938, and ancient Hindu texts command that widows remain chaste and unmarried, lest they be reincarnated as jackals (!). The girl, named Chuyia (played by a little cherub named Sarala), is the central figure in "Water," the third part in Deepa Mehta's political trilogy that began with "Fire" and "Earth."
Mehta, an Indian woman who moved to Canada in her 20s, creates a powerfully real (but cinematically lovely) view of 1930s India, at a time when Gandhi was coming to prominence and urging Indians to get out from under British rule. Indian women, however, particularly widows, remained oppressed.
Chuyia is sent to a small compound where a dozen or so widows live, most of them a great deal older than her. (How she came to be married is never explained, but we are given to understand that child brides were common, and that there's every chance she never even met the man.) At 8, Chuyia is curious, stubborn and cheerful like a child should be, and she quickly befriends Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow who shares her enthusiasm for life. Kalyani is in a different class altogether, though, being pimped out by the head woman Madhumati (the single-named Manorama) in order to bring much-needed income to the house. That widows are supposed to remain unmarried yet can work as prostitutes is just one of many contradictions in the archaic rules the women live by.
While in the city one day, Kalyani and Chuyia meet Narayan (John Abraham), a handsome law student. He's an idealist and a nationalist, eager to follow Gandhi's teachings. He and Kalyani are smitten with each other. Can she defy her keepers and remarry?
Though the details of the story are foreign to Western thinking, the general themes of forbidden love and conflicted religious feelings are familiar to almost everyone. Mehta includes another widow character, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), who experiences some of the same conflicts as Kalyani. While many of the widows are complacent and resigned, Shakuntala questions whether this is what the Scriptures truly teach. She turns to a local priest for guidance, devoutly obeying the rules in the meantime just in case.
Mehta's regular cinematographer Giles Nuttgens beautifully photographs the Sri Lankan scenery (Sri Lanka because threats and pressures in India made it impossible to shoot the film there). The nights are tinted in blue, the Ganges river looks deep and strong, and the countrysides are alive with color. The film's visuals hold almost as much power as its story does.
The 2-disc set comes in a regular-width DVD case with Disc 1 on a platter that swings out to reveal Disc 2.
There are optional English subtitles, which you'll need if you don't speak Hindi. (The film's six songs are not translated, for some reason.) Audio-wise, there are three versions of the original Hindi soundtrack -- 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, 5.1 DTS Surround, and 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo -- as well as a French track in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. (This set is a Canadian release, hence the favoritism toward the French language.)
A song index on the main menu of Disc 1 lets you skip to any of the six songs heard in the film.
VIDEO: As mentioned in the review of the film itself, the cinematography is striking, and the DVD transfer is first-rate. I doubt the film looked any better even in state-of-the-art movie theaters. The widescreen (2.35:1) anamorphic presentation is preserved for both versions of the movie.
AUDIO: The various mixes (5.1 Surround, DTS Surround and Dolby Stereo) are all superb. The balance between music and dialogue is nicely achieved, and the recordings are crisp and full.
EXTRAS: The special features on Disc 1 are as follows:
- A director's commentary by Deepa Mehta. Much of her commentary is useless play-by-play: She's going to say this to him; he's going to say this back to her, etc. There's also a great deal of pontificating on the woes of the Indian widows -- stuff we get from watching the film anyway, in a much more sublime and beautiful way. She tells some making-of anecdotes, but very little that isn't covered by the DVDs' other extras.
- Trailers for four other films ("Bollywood/Hollywood," "Eve & the Fire Horse," "Sabah" and "The Syrian Bride").
The bulk of the extras are on Disc 2:
There's one highly unusual special feature: an entirely different version of the film, recorded in English. Mehta filmed both versions simultaneously with the same cast and crew, shooting a scene in Hindi then re-doing it in English. The English version was never released theatrically, but here it is on the DVD.
You may be tempted to watch the English version rather than the subtitled Hindi version, but you should resist. Hindi is the native language of most of the actors, and while they can speak English, their performances are more natural, believable and compelling in their native tongue. (The girl who plays Chuyia, a Sri Lankan, didn't know Hindi OR English and had to learn her lines phonetically.)
Another factor: The English version isn't line-for-line the same as the Hindi version. I didn't scrutinize them too closely, but in the first several minutes I noticed two omissions in the English version. Chuyia's father doesn't ask if she remembers getting married (he jumps right to "Your husband is dead"), and mean old Madhumati's first lines belittling a fellow widow are gone as well. (Her language is a lot saucier in Hindi, too!) All told, the English version is 2 1/2 minutes shorter than the Hindi one. There are surely no major plot points missing, of course, but you might as well watch the fuller, better acted one.
Note that the director's commentary and alternate audio versions (DTS and Surround) are not available on the English version of the film, nor is the song index.
An informative behind-the-scenes featurette (21:11) has interviews with most of the principal cast and the director interspersed with clips from the film. The story of how production was started and shut down in 2000 is told, along with how Mehta got it going again several years later.
The film's original EPK (electronic press kit), "The Making of Water" (15:40), is what was sent out to the media upon the film's release. It covers most of the same ground as the superior new-for-the-DVD behind-the-scenes featurette.
The Canadian TV series "Scanning the Movies" devoted two episodes to "Water," both of which are included here (48:10 total). The host, John Pungente, isn't exactly a charismatic personage, but he's a good interviewer, and his face-to-face chat with Mehta comprises most of the 48 minutes. (He gets a few minutes with producer David Hamilton too).
There are two deleted scenes (4:26 total) labeled only "Scene 25" and "Scene 54," with no other context provided. One is Narayan having a tense conversation with his mother on the subject of marriage. The other is Chuyia giving Kalyani a note Narayan sent her and the two of them discussing its contents. Neither adds much, but they're nice to have.
There is a gallery of still photos that makes you think: Why do they include galleries of still photos on DVDs? Couldn't we see these online -- or better yet, watch the movie and see the pictures actually move?
This is a touching and romantic sort of film that brims with emotion. The DVD treatment is fantastic (apart from a bland commentary), paying tribute to the movie's merits and giving viewers what they'd like to see.