You want diversity? Water is a film set in India, directed by a woman (herself born in India but a resident of Canada for several decades), filmed in Sri Lanka because of problems with earlier attempts to film in India, starring a Canadian actress of Indian and Polish descent and an Indian actor whose father was Catholic and mother Iranian. A key part of an 8–year-old girl is played by a Sri Lankan actress who speaks neither Hindi nor English. And Gandhi shows up, with one actor playing the great man and another providing his voice. Now it is nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar … submitted by Canada, as India apparently wants nothing to do with it.
And I’ve only hinted as some of the many stories told about the production, tales which threaten to overwhelm the actual movie. It’s a good one, beautifully shot, with some excellent acting and an interesting, even important, premise, that widows in Hindu culture are disdained. There’s a romantic subplot which gets in the way … the actors involved are absolutely gorgeous, and the woman, Lisa Ray, can even act, but she’s a bit too glammed up for the setting. Still, director Deepa Mehta does what she sets out to do, the plot turns surprising just when you think you’ve figured it out, and the darkness of much of the movie is tempered by hope.
The behind-the-scenes drama is not entirely verifiable. Some of it is clearly true, most importantly that when Mehta first tried to make the movie in India in 2000, her sets were burned down by irate fundamentalists. Some of it is arguable … there was a plagiarism lawsuit, settled out of court so no one really knows the story, and Wikipedia lists all sorts of oddball stuff involving dead parrots and the like (“citation needed” perhaps tells you everything you need to know about those rumors).
The best thing about Water is Seema Biswas as a widow who does what she can to help others while examining her religious convictions. Not only is Biswas terrific in the movie, she comes with baggage of the positive kind: she played the title character in the hard-to-recommend, excruciatingly intense Bandit Queen, a movie with controversies of its own. Being only a dabbler in Indian film, I hadn’t seen Biswas in anything since her startling debut, and didn’t even recognize her at first, with her cropped hair (and the addition of ten+ years, of course). Based on the two movies I’ve seen her in, I think she’s my new favorite actress.