In the Bollywood cinema that I know, the Masala type, it seems there are two (main) types of films: the social/historical and the comedy/escapist. Of course, there are films that belong to the two types (and they are some of the best) such as Dil se or Monsoon Wedding, and there are probably films that don’t really fit into this categorization. Water belongs to the social type, even if it contains a romance element (and if I had to count the films that don’t use romance, that would be a very short list indeed! In fact, among the ones I know, I can think of only Black). It belongs to the same category as Matrubhoomi, that extraordinary documentary/experiment which explores the consequences of a society without women. Obviously, the oppression and even alienation to which women in India are subjected is the link between the two films, and even if (obviously) this theme is very present in many Bollywood movies (Cf. especially Umrao Jaan or Paheli), in these two films, it is the central subject. Water succeeds in merging the social denunciation and the pleasant artistic dimension and of course the second is used as a means for the first. I don’t know whether I shouldn’t therefore add the feminist film as a category? Speaking of which, there is an interesting “feminist” link between Paheli and Matrubhoomi made here.
Are Water or Matrubhoomi still Bollywood? This provocative question only serves me as an instrument to look at the particularity of Deepa Mehta’s film. Because of course yes, they’re still Bollywood. Bollywood is not just Masala (see this wiki link). There are the historical films, the political or social ones, and even the imaginary/fantasy ones, such as Paheli, where legends and folklore play a part. There is no recipe for a good film. Films can be satisfying from so many points of view! So, what is very satisfying in Water is, first, the realism, the psychological and the social reality shown. These confined women, with their varied individualities, their lives torn or forgotten, the little society they form with its structure, its rules, its tensions, and its mixture of good and bad (the mistress of the ashram Madhumati thanking Kalyani, the long-haired heroine for giving her burial money to pay for an old inmate’s cremation, and on the other hand sending her to the rich man’s house as a whore). (Another example, an ecstatically radiant Chuyia painting old Madhumati’s smiling face on the day of colours, in spite of having been reprimanded so often, and yet she will send her whoring when Kalyani is dead…)
Then much of the charm of Water comes from the child actress Sarala, who is delightful to watch from beginning to end. Around her shines a sort of aura of joy, of freedom and of hope, all these signs of life and youth that the widows’ community must stifle. She is free, she is life. Her little dog, her companionship with the lovely and movingly hopeful Kalyani, her naïve questioning of the institution and religious rules, her unrepressed feelings of the human nature we all share, all these elements are some of the ingredients of her appeal (I loved her voice too). All the more surprising that she speaks neither English nor Hindi, from what I’ve read, and had to learn her cues by heart.
The movie is given additional meaning when one knows that it has gone through the ordeal of being the target of traditionalists, who burnt the sets, forced Mira Nair to shoot it far from its original location (Varanasi), five years later. The fact that she managed to have it done in spite of this opposition, and that it had the success it has had (more overseas than in India, I read), all this speaks a lot for it. The ending has been commented upon a lot, of course: I would like to say that the author’s commitment to children and women has a universal appeal. In a world where men so often stand for oppression and violence, to the expense of the rest of humankind, such a battle is the eternal battle for the higher values of emancipation and human rights. Gandhi would have been proud that what he started in his time is still courageously continued today.