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Year: 2005
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 114 min
Director: Deepa Mehta
Producer: David Hamilton
Writer: Deepa Mehta
Cinematographer: Giles Nuttgens
Editor: Colin Moodie
Sound: Sylvain Arseneault
Music: Mychael Danna
Cast: Lisa Ray, Kulbushan Kharbanda, Seema Biswas, John Abraham, Sarala, Manorama, Raghuvir Yadav, Rishma Malik
Production Company: David Hamilton Productions

Set in Colonial India in 1938 against the backdrop of Gandhi’s rise to power, Water is the third and final instalment in Deepa Mehta's “elemental trilogy” (which also includes Fire and Earth), which examines the impact of religion, politics and social mores on the lives of Indian women.

Chuyia (Sarala) is an eight-year-old child bride whose husband has suddenly died. According to custom, her head is shaved and she is taken to an ashram for Hindu widows, where she is expected to atone for the sins of her past, which, it is believed, resulted in the death of her husband. It is a virtual exile, with no hope of escape. The ashram is full of other widows, old and young, some of whom have accepted their fate, while others are bitter about their lot in life.

The elderly, domineering Madhumati (Manorma) is the ashram’s self-appointed boss. She manages the other widows’ affairs, brokers back-alley deals with shady local merchants and hires out some of the widows – particularly the beautiful but sorrowful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) – as prostitutes to upper-caste clients. The far more ethical Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) acts as a voice of reason and takes it upon herself to look out for the vulnerable young Chuyia. When Kalyani befriends a handsome, progressive lawyer named Narayan (John Abraham), a forbidden romance ignites between them that threatens to disrupt the stability of the ashram and imperil the lives of Kalyani and Chuyia.

A compelling, visually lush and emotionally charged film, Water debuted to great acclaim as the Opening Night Gala at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival®. It met with similar praise from critics upon its commercial release; the film was commended not only for its powerful feminist and humanist statements (it closes with a coda explaining that several million widows are still living in shame in ashrams today), but also for Mehta’s remarkable achievement in crafting a film of such lyrical beauty despite the torrent of violent protest that surrounded the film’s production.

Outraged by the film’s supportive portrayal of a widow attempting to rejoin society by remarrying, approximately twenty thousand protestors affiliated with the Hindu nationalist government in Uttar Pradesh state stormed the set in the northern city of Varanasi early in 2000, tearing it apart and throwing it into the Ganges River, causing more than $650,000 in damages. Mehta was burned in effigy during subsequent protests and received death threats throughout the time she spent in India. Following the attack, the state withdrew permission to shoot the film in Varanasi and urged the federal government to review the script; five sentences were removed with Mehta’s consent. Four years later, filming resumed in Sri Lanka under the fake title “Full Moon.” Seema Biswas and Lisa Ray replaced Indian stars Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, respectively, who had appeared in scenes shot in Varanasi but were unable to continue when the production was rescheduled.

Water garnered nine Genie Award nominations, winning for Best Cinematography, Music and Leading Actress (Seema Biswas). It was nominated for the 2006 Academy Award® for Best Foreign Language Film and was named one of Canada's Top Ten of 2005 by an independent, national panel of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.

By: Andrew McIntosh

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