| Lisa Ray in a scene from Water
The triumph of Deepa Mehta’s Water over our very own Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munnabhai at the Oscars is a slap on the face of the film industry. Even if it is a long way between a nomination and going home with the statuette, the fact that Water made it to the coveted top five is reason enough to put your hands together for India-born Deepa Mehta. It is a slap for the film industry because in a country that boasts of quantity — we make the highest number of films, if you count all the languages we film in — we didn’t have even one that could be held up as truly international in quality.
There’s really nothing wrong if we don’t make films with the Oscars as the goal. But then, we shouldn’t be kidding ourselves over the global content or the sledgehammer impact Hindi cinema is making in the West.
The nomination of Water is also a slap on the face of the hysterical mobs that stopped Deepa from filming her moving story in Varanasi.
The Water that is making a splash in the West today was finally shot, low profile, far away from Varanasi, in Sri Lanka, with a totally new cast. Out went Akshay Kumar, Shabana and Nandita. In came John, Lisa Ray and Seema Biswas.
There were changes in location and cast, but fortunately, Deepa did not have to water down her script.
Picture a sprightly, chirpy girl who is not even ten years old. She is in the secure company of her family who have taken her to Varanasi. A short holiday' Imagine the utter bewilderment of the child when her folks leave her in a dark, cold, unfriendly place full of foreboding strangers and walk away forever. That’s the way Water starts, reaching out and holding on to your heart straightaway.
The objection that the film “paints Indian culture in black” has to be seen against the truth that Water is set in 1930. If objections have to be raised one could object even to Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog where Padmini Kolhapure, the young widow who has not even consummated her marriage, is almost forced into tonsuring her head. Her mother, played by Nanda, is dressed in colourful splendour while her daughter wears drab white, no makeup, no jewellery (she has to be unattractive, so that she does not draw male attention) and has to eat a widow’s diet (one that won’t excite her sexually!). After all that, she gets raped by her brother-in-law who calmly gets away with his crime.
There were no objections raised against RK’s Indian widow. Are we objecting today because, like the narrow thinkers who want Taslima Nasreen banned every time she opens her mouth, we too have become too thin-skinned to allow an uncomfortable point of view'
* Hmm, John Abraham is the clear winner in the Water race. He is off the Oscars after distributing kaju katli , his favourite sweet. Beneath all that dimpled charm is a fiercely ambitious man who wants recognition. He got it on the ramp, but he found the fame restricted to the few who went to fashion shows. He wanted more, he got it with Hindi cinema. He now wants to be known in many more parts of the world and recognition in the West (he’s got an agent lined up there) is clearly what Abraham the ambitious is after today.
* The John-Ravi Chopra combine couldn’t pull it off with Baabul. But the association yielded Water which was picked up at a throwaway price by Chopra for distribution in India. With the Oscar nomination, Chopra might just make a bigger killing with Water than he did with his own production, Baabul. And don’t miss the funny twist out here — Water is a stark portrayal of child widows while Baabul was a clear message for widow remarriage!
* By the way, Gandhi has prevailed again at the Oscars. Munnabhai’s Gandhi might have been rejected but Water too has John playing an ardent follower of Gandhi. And Gandhi does make his presence felt in the climax at the railway station where he has gathered his followers. It is against this backdrop that the film ends, with a flicker of optimism for the future of the child widow!
Bharathi S. Pradhan is managing editor of Movie Mag International