Chuyia is an 8-year-old girl with bright, sparkling eyes and a long, untidy braid that falls well below her waist. Her tiny wrists have two red bangles each and silver anklets encircle her bony ankles. Her family recently married her to a successful older man of their village with the prospect that when she came of age she would move to his home and become a proper wife. This plan is quickly thrown into disarray when the husband becomes ill and dies, leaving Chuyia a widow. Tradition dictates that Chuyia be forced to move into a house for Hindu widows to spend the rest of her life in renunciation. As a widow, she is expected to atone for the past sins that resulted in the death of her husband.
Madhumati, a widow in her mid-70s, is the house matriarch. By day she sits in the courtyard ordering instructions to the other widows, while at night she lies in her room, smoking ganja and listening to the latest gossip from her only friend, Gulabi, a eunuch and pimp.
Shakuntala is one of the 14 widows sharing the household into which Chuyia is forced to move. Perhaps the most enigmatic of the widows, she is good-looking enough, intelligent and educated. Quiet and reserved, Shakuntala is caught between the hopelessness of living out her remaining years as a widow and her devout adherence to the dictates of the Hindu scriptures.
Kalyani is breathtaking, and the only widow whose hair is not shorn, as a nod to her profession which was forced upon her at an early age by the powerful head widow Madhumati. Uncomplicated and gentle, she radiates a child-like innocence. Kalyani spends her day either playing with her puppy Kaalu, or talking to the small statue of the God Krishna she has in her room. Her nights though are surreal. Gulabi ferries her across the waters to the mansions of the rich gentry in Rawalpur. This she accepts with a quiet equanimity; it's her karma. Besides, she feels that perhaps this is a test that the God Krishna is putting her through and as the holy books dictate "she should live as the beautiful lotus flower untouched by the dirty water in which it resides." The rest of the widows ostracize her as they feel that close contact will result in a sullying of their purity. When she meets Narayan, the spiritual acceptance of her fate begins to disassemble and she becomes resistant to Madhumati's will.
Narayan, who has just finished his law degree, is an idealist and follower of Gandhi's Quit India Movement. Through pure chance Narayan meets Kalyani. There is an immediate attraction, but the restriction placed on interaction with widows makes it difficult to find a way of pursuing any kind of relationship. Gandhi's movement is not solely dedicated to removing the British from Indian soil but also focuses on social justice particularly as it relates to the treatment of women. Narayan ignores the cultural taboos and continues to meet Kalyani in order to marry her. But marriage to widows is strictly forbidden.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Water was shot over a period of 45 days in Sri Lanka under the title "Full Moon." "We were taking no chances and kept a very low profile while on the shoot," says producer David Hamilton. "Although we did not expect the kind of troubles that we had in India we were making no assumptions. Most films hire a publicist to provide the press updates on the progress of the film, whereas we had an anti-publicist whose responsibilities were to divert attention from our activities."
Hamilton had also been the producer on the original attempt to shoot Water in India as well as Mehta's producer on the first two films of the trilogy, Fire and Earth, and on her Canadian box office hit Bollywood/Hollywood. "Over the past ten years of working together we have developed an uncanny silent language which quickens the pace of mounting a production," states Mehta. "We don't always agree but it never takes us too long to resolve our differences. Over the past five years, this was of immeasurable value in maintaining our determination to put Water back together again."
Giles Nuttgens has been Mehta's cinematographer on all three films in the trilogy and the collaboration was so important to Mehta that the production was delayed from January to April so that Nuttgens could finish Bee Season starring Richard Geer and Juliette Binoche. As a result, Nuttgens had very little prep on this shoot, but his close relationship with Mehta and their shorthand communication made it possible to integrate their respective visions very quickly. Nuttgens recounts that their discussions concluded with an understanding that "Water, unlike the reds of Fire, unlike the rich browns of Earth, needed the calmer moods of blues and greens. Despite the murky, silted and dirty water of the Ganges, we would need a clarity and sobriety that didn't exist in the other films. Deepa and I had talked about Satyajit Ray, about The Apu Trilogy, about the lack of camera movement in films of this period and the way Ray used it to show a life that had not changed over centuries."
Mehta first met Nuttgens on the shoot of The Indiana Jones Chronicles that they were doing for George Lucas. He went on to become one of the cinematographers on Lucas's Star Wars Episodes I, II and III. Nuttgens was as passionate as anyone in the desire to complete the "Trilogy of the Elements" for Mehta. His cinematography on this film pushed the technical limits of the film medium, especially in some of the night scenes. The lighting of the entire width of the river in one night scene was particularly challenging but the results were stunning.
The original shoot was located in the holy city of Benares on the river Ganges and the first challenge in Sri Lanka, a largely Buddhist country, was to create a Hindu temple complex with "ghats" - steps which lead down to the river bank so that devout Hindus can easily perform their daily prayers. This did not exist in Sri Lanka. Production Designer Dilip Mehta was clear in his vision that he was in no way attempting to re-create Benares. "Benares itself was not essential to the story of Water and it would have been foolhardy at best to make any attempt to replicate a thousand-year-old city facade on an independent film budget," Mehta stated. What he did create was a set almost half a mile long on a deserted riverbank south of the city of Colombo. His focus was on authentic detail and the set became so convincing that, within weeks of its completion, a local hotel began to offer boat tours "of the ancient Hindu ruins." This became an annoyance as their boat would constantly have to be chased out of the shot. This along with the local hand-paddled ferry, the monitor lizards who lived in a swamp nearby and a 20-foot python who seemed to like the warmth of the concrete ghats became challenges to the Canadian crew who were more accustomed to raccoons or at worst bears.
The other major location was the "Widows' House" which was found in the centre of Colombo. The small Hindu community had built a temple complex about one hundred years ago and the house in which the trustees of the temple lived was generously made available to the production. Again Dilip Mehta had to build. The script required a second floor and it was necessary to age the interiors so as to create the sense of 1930s India. The art department added to this faithful re-creation by bringing in from India trunks of brass pots, reed umbrellas, wooden doorways and antique household accessories. The original materials which were to be utilized in the Benares shoot had been stored in a warehouse north of New Delhi but unfortunately were washed away during a Monsoon two years ago and had to be replaced. "The challenge was in creating a space that was vibrant for the camera yet a space that would echo the paucity of the lives of the widows," said Dilip Mehta. "But then Deepa's script made it simple. The script was light and shadow alike. The colours baited you. The absence of colour made you weep. It was all in the script. It was hard, almost impossible for a production designer to blunder. The script was akin to a GPS. A blueprint of the soul. So, in all honesty the challenge never wore me down, the humidity did."
Costume designer Dolly Ahluwallia had already created the costumes for Water once before and, as with the props, the previous costumes had been destroyed in the Monsoon and were created anew. The challenge this time was finding materials and tailors who knew Indian dress as Sri Lankans tend to wear different clothing from that of Indians. Ahluwallia made many of the costumes in India and brought them to Sri Lanka with her. In her usual organized and regimented way she had the entire department set up in a large room in the basement of the crew hotel within days of her arrival.
The background score for the film was created by the incomparable Mychael Danna whose compositional scope provided the range to deal with reflective and intimate scenes involving one or two characters as well as those of more epic proportions with thousands of extras. The Indian songs, which are utilized as background for many scenes, were composed by AR Rahman, India's most accomplished and lauded film composer. Danna had worked with Rahman before and took great pleasure in merging Rahman's songs with his own background score so as to create a seamless soundscape.