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MRQE Top Critic

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

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Water has a very international flavor. It certainly has appeal for the fair-weather art house crowd. It’s a feel-good movie with a bit of cultural anthropology, but with mainstream sensibilities so that it’s not too challenging. In short, it’s the kind of movie critics hate to pan because it makes us look like baby-eating monsters. But truth be told, Water is as tedious as a high-school health-class movie.

Crones and Movie Stars

Our gorgeous widow catches the eye of a rich young man who looks like a movie star
Our gorgeous widow catches the eye of a rich young man who looks like a movie star

Set in1938, Water rails against the Indian practice of ostracizing widows (and to a lesser degree, the even worse practice of marrying off prepubescent girls). Its heroine is a girl of 7, Chuyia (Sarala), who can’t even remember her own wedding night, much less her husband. Still, she is informed that she is now a widow and must be sent to the ashram for the rest of her life. She is shaved bald, given a plain white sari, and abandoned at the old widows’ home.

The ashram is the kind of place where, when Chuyia asks a reasonable question that challenges the religious practice, the only rebuttal is a slap in the face. If when the husband dies, the wife half dies, isn’t she still half alive? Slap. Where is the ashram for boy widows? Slap.

Most of the widows look like the old crones in a Miyazaki cartoon. One is young enough to look a little rugged, and one just happens to look like a movie star, with a full head of hair, a cute, sharp nose, and striking blue-gray eyes. She’s the girl who, in spite of her shyness, makes most of the ashram’s money, doing the only sort of work a widow can do (and I don’t mean laundry).

Our gorgeous widow catches the eye of an upper-caste young man, Narayan, who just happens to look like a movie star. He’s tall, slender, and handsome with slick black hair and a rough, short beard, softened by his flute, his Gandhi glasses, and his progressive ideas.


Seven years in the making, Water was slowed by death threats from religious fundamentalists. And the title card at the end says that the practice of ostracizing widows continues to this day. If so, this movie needs to be shown in those parts of India, where people still don’t understand what’s wrong with the practice.

But to those of us with a different perspective and no religious dictates on ostracizing widows (or marrying off our young daughters before high school), it’s all too easy to see what’s wrong. We certainly root for the victims in the movie, but it’s so morally simplistic — for most of us — that it’s boring.

There’s no challenge in creating sympathy for someone so obviously wronged. The message is so shallow, this Water is about as deep as an after-school special preaching “racism is bad.” There is no nuance or subtlety for adults in the audience.

Snatched From the Jaws of Victory

Actually, there is a faint promise of deeper issues. A couple of conversations almost raise the underlying question of cultural heritage versus individual rights. Chuyia’s innocent questions are a good start, but the slapping keeps them from resonating.

But later, Narayan and the pretty young widow have a conversation. He says “all the old ways are dying out.”

All of them?”

“Not all of them should die out; just the bad ones”

“And who decides which is which?”

It’s the perfect question, and a serious discussion of it might have allowed me to mildly recommend the film (so desperate was I to find anything of interest). But rather than wrangle with it, or offer a thoughtful answer, the girl throws herself into the man’s arms and says “You.”

That’s as serious as this movie gets when it comes to the interesting moral questions that still apply. So unless you live in a culture where 8-year-old girls are married to 80-year-old men (in which case, you’re probably not allowed to read the Internet unsupervised), Water is the opposite of refreshing.