Magazine article The Spectator

Wishy Washy

Magazine article The Spectator

Wishy Washy

Article excerpt

Water 12A, selected cinemas

Water opens with a beautiful little Indian girl sitting on the back of a cart joyously chewing on sugar cane. She has luscious hair, pinchable cheeks, dark eyes, a nose-ring and tinkling silver anklets. (So cute; Madonna would kill for her. ) A middle-aged man is on the cart, too, lying on his back and groaning. He is her husband and he dies. We don't know how long she has been married for, or even if she's had time to register that she is actually married, but now she is a widow and, as her father tells her, she must now lead a widow's life. 'For how long?' she asks. She is eight years old. She has no idea that she is about to be cast off into the most excruciating, lifelong limbo.

This is a promising opening to a film that sometimes fulfils that promise and sometimes doesn't; that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film but lost out -- rightly -- to the much surer-handed Pan's Labyrinth. Yes, this film has something to say, not just about Hindu fundamentalism, but probably about all religious fundamentalism, which dehumanises and ostracises women in the most startlingly inventive ways, but a good film and an honourable message are not one and the same. True, it has to be better than an entirely empty-headed, badly bloated pile of trash to do with Pirates and the Caribbean, and at least it is that. It must matter, too, at some level. Although this film is set in the 1930s, when the director, Deepa Mehta, started filming in India in 2000, Hindu fundamentalists stormed the set and burned it to the ground (in the end, she decamped to Sri Lanka).

However, Mehta, who also wrote the screenplay, allows all her moral indignation to not so much drive the film, as distract her from it.

According to the Law of Manu (a sacred Hindi text): 'a widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste', although, when it comes to 'chaste', this rather depends on who needs what from whom, as we shall see. So the little girl, Chuyia (Sarala), has all her hair shaved off and is sent to live in a makeshift ashram with 14 other shaved widows, all disdained by 'respectable' citizens and treated as social lepers. Chuyia doesn't understand the change, of course, just as she doesn't understand the concept of 'forever'. …

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