This week saw the announcement of the submissions from several different countries for the Best International Film category at the Annual Academy Awards. India has chosen to submit Rang De Basanti, while Canada has submitted Water. There is speculation around whether Almodovar will make it as Spain's entry yet again for his Penelope Cruz starrer, Volver, while German movie The Lives of Others is a hot favourite for winning this year.
Water managed to make it through as a Canadian entry on a technicality. After last year's Italian entry, Private, was declared ineligible because it featured dialogue in Arabic & Hebrew, but not Italian, this year's rules have allowed films to use any language, so long as the primary language is not English. With this increased flexibility, and thanks to Deepa Mehta, the film's director, being a Canadian citizen, Water has been officially submitted as Canada's entry.
Alas, an Oscar nomination, or even an award, does not a good movie make. Water is a movie that started out with great hope, but ended up lacking impact. The real tragedy is that Water failed despite some excellent actors, good cinematography and a powerful soundtrack.
Set in pre-Independence India, Water focuses on the lives of widows in a charitable home in Varanasi, where they are sent, once their husbands die, to live lives of denial, penitence and restraint. The entry of a young & feisty child-widow, Chuhiya (played remarkably well by Sri Lankan child actor Sarala) throws the lives of the other residents into turmoil, challenging long standing convictions and traditions. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of a young idealist, who falls in love with one of the widows. Several complications & one dead body later, the movie ends with the child-widow being sent off with the idealist on a train where Mahatma Gandhi has been preaching to the masses.
Water was a movie with great promise, and could have been a great movie. It is let down by several factors - most strikingly the lead cast. Both Lisa Ray & John Abraham cannot communicate in Hindi, and when Hindi, especially the lilting cadence of eastern UP, is chosen as the language of the film, finding actors who are convincing is critical. Unfortunately, Ray's inability to articulate herself, or frankly emote, makes the movie appear completely trivial and amateurish. I was frankly surprised by Mehta's casting - its one thing to cast Ray in a movie like Bollywood Hollywood where not much regard for the craft of acting is necessary, but in movies purportedly as dramatic as Water, I would expected better casting.
This incredible goof up in casting is made even more infuriating by the presence of some excellent actors, whose craven under-utilisation makes your teeth grate in frustration. Actors like Seema Biswas, Kulbhushan Kharbanda & Raghubir Yadav make noteworthy appearances in the movie, but despite their heroic efforts are unable to save the movie from descending into abject inanity. The scene where Kalyani, played by Ray, chooses to drown herself in the river is totally devoid of any sentiment, primarily because I found it quite challenging to feel any emotion watching a mannequin swathed in white immersing itself in dark blue water.
What really grates is that it didn't have to be this way. Mehta is capable of making good movies. Earth, the second of her Elements trilogy and based on Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, Cracking Earth, was a good example of her abilities, as was her earlier venture, Sam & Me. Water, just goes to prove that no matter how politically controversial, only good filmmaking can make a good film. Mehta had originally cast the superb Nandita Das & Shabana Azmi in the lead roles, but after her first attempts to film in India were unsuccessful, she chose to recast the entire film. In an interview she claims this is because the original faces had become "too famous", something that made them unable to play her characters. Somehow, I'm not convinced, and methinks this was one fatal mistake.
Water - give it a miss, and pray that those Oscar walas do as well.