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Issue Date:  May 26, 2006

Hindu widows and American victims

'Water' exposes the plight of Indian widows; 'United 93' is good, but why is it here?


Deepa Mehta’s Water, the third in the Indian-Canadian director’s series “The Elements,” is one of the most lyrical and powerful films in recent years. Set in 1938 when the influence of Mahatma Gandhi is beginning to be felt, it concerns the fate of Hindu widows, forced to live together as outcasts in decrepit houses in pre-independence India. A profound cry of indignation at this injustice, “Water” was delayed for years after violent protests by religious fundamentalists shut down production in 2000, and Ms. Mehta was forced to shoot it in Sri Lanka.

The movie opens with 8-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) being introduced into the widow-house, which lies next to the water. The older widows are kind to her and enjoy her high spirits, but she still wonders when her parents will come to take her home. Chuyia is a special favorite of Shakuntula (Seema Biswas), who assists the local holy man, and of the beautiful young Kalyani (Lisa Ray, one of India’s top models), who lets Chuyia play with her pet dog.

The most outrageous aspect of life at the widow-house is that its conniving supervisor forces Kalyani to contribute occasionally to its support by going across the river to serve as a prostitute. But “Water” also contains genuine moments of humor, as when Chuyia shows her independent spirit or delights an older widow by giving her a (forbidden) sweet fruit.

The photography by Giles Nuttgens is exquisite, making constant use of the gleaming river, the lush surroundings and everyday ritual. The love affair between Kalyani and handsome, wealthy Narayan (John Abraham), a top Bollywood star, may seem almost too idealistic. Narayan, a law student, is a strong admirer of Gandhi, who is beginning to have an impact on his countrymen, but is no match for the forces of tradition.

Fortunately, Shakuntula, who has already begun to question the system that holds her captive, uses the excuse of a Gandhi stopover at the local railroad station to place Chuyia in the care of Gandhi’s supporters. This event provides an ending in accord with the movie’s underlying spirit, tragic but tender, realistic but unbowed.

Some of the fundamentalist rage at the director is probably a carryover from the indignation felt at her 1996 film, “Fire,” which deals with a lesbian relationship. Angry at the historical treatment of widows in India, Ms. Mehta includes no religious voice critical of these practices. Her movie is nevertheless memorable for its poignant beauty, deepened by the use of traditional Indian music as it gently unfolds its story.

There’s not very much useful to say to prospective moviegoers about United 93, the story of the fourth plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11. I’m glad to counter the advance criticism that it came too soon after the event and exploits a gruesome subject. British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, who made a splash here with 2002’s “Bloody Sunday,” a recreation of the deadly 1972 clash between overly aggressive British paratroopers and Irish protesters, specializes in jerky camerawork, and in “United 93” omits the more macabre elements of his story.

Knowing that the terrorists who died in the climactic crash were planning to bomb the nation’s capitol, I’m glad to honor the brave passengers who rushed their way to the cockpit to take over the plane, but I remain unsure of why the movie was made. Wouldn’t a memorial concert, with proceeds going to a cause designated by the victims’ families, have been more appropriate?

This is not to say that “United 93” doesn’t generate suspense or that Mr. Greengrass hasn’t been scrupulous in following the chronology of the event with countless shots of passengers on their cell phones, and traffic controllers and intelligence officers watching screens in futile efforts to decipher the intentions of the terrorists. To his credit, the director has invented as little as possible; the downside is that we are without any realized characters we can identify with and feel few of their emotions except fear.

The opening is strong and uncluttered: Four Muslim men are praying in a hotel room. They are treated with respect, not as villains. The routine of passengers waiting to board the plane is effective in its familiarity, drawing viewers into the story. We observe the scholarly, reserved Ziad Jarrah (Khalid Abdallah), who pilots the plane after the hijackers kill the pilots, and note a picture of the Capitol taped to the control yoke. It is hard to make sense of shots of increasingly worried traffic controllers as well as of passengers in various stages of alarm. To his credit, Mr. Greengrass doesn’t exploit the situation for grisly effect. Some will even tire of the speculations of outside officials who try unsuccessfully to get in touch with the White House and never really understand developments on the plane.

Flight 93’s departure was delayed. The takeoff was only a few moments before the attacks on the World Trade Center. Mr. Greengrass builds suspense without showing us the death of the pilots or offering a posturing heroism. “We’ve got to do it ourselves” is spoken with measured determination from the rear of the plane; when some of the male passengers rush the hijackers at the front, there is determination, not false bravado. Such restraint is admirable, but it remains unclear what meaning we can attach to the action that is shown us.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR ’s regular film reviewer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2006

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