Water **** (PG-13)
The concluding installment of crusading filmmaker Deepa Mehta's "elements" trilogy, Water explores a subject that's largely unknown to stateside audiences: the plight of Indian widows. In the 1930s that the film chronicles (and, to a lesser extent, today), women who are unlucky enough to lose their husbands are sent to live in poverty in ashrams. The reason is ostensibly spiritual — with their better halves gone, they are considered half-dead and expected to conduct themselves as such — though many of the affected recognize that the true impetus for their banishment is rooted in economics. What family is going to re-accept the financial burden of caring for a daughter whom they've already given away?
In the film, the horrific scourge is visited upon women whose ages range from prepubescence to senior citizenship. Young and old alike are forced to shave their heads, endure wholesale shunning and even prevent their shadows from falling on religious icons at wedding rehearsals. Only one young woman, Kalyani (Lisa Ray), is allowed to keep her hair — and entirely so she can work as a prostitute to keep the ashram afloat.
Kalyani's clandestine romance with a handsome law student (John Abraham) is the harbinger of changes to come, and it's here that Mehta gets into trouble, tying in her reformist impulses too tidily with concurrent cultural upheavals like India's looming independence and Gandhi's revolutionary cross-country tour. When a character noted that "times are changing," I took it as a subtle hint that times were changing. Still, all the pat plotting and discourse in the world can't extinguish the fire of a film this well-intended, sensitively acted and beautifully filmed. (The title "Water" fosters a drowning/purification motif that's as photogenic as it is thought-provoking.) And though the story's structure is a bit strange, Mehta pulls off a second-act revelation that might change the way you think about both narrative and self-betterment. Without spoiling it, it's a bracing reminder that knowledge is indeed power — then, now and forever.
(1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 11)
Mistress of Spices ***1/2 (NR)
The directorial debut of screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges — once again writing with his wife, filmmaker Gurinder Chadha — Mistress of Spices also constitutes a reunion of the pair and their Bride & Prejudice star, Aishwarya Rai. With a pedigree like that, you'd expect the film to be pretty and overly precious, and it is. Thankfully, it has underpinnings in myth and metaphysics that make it seem less trivial than Chadha's oeuvre. One of the earliest shots shows a young girl walking on a bed of hot coals and eventually bursting into flame herself; it's as if legendary album-design firm Hipgnosis had branched out into film, its stoner-showman sensibility intact.
Nothing that ensues in Spices is quite so avant-garde, but it still brings a playful spirituality to the tired genres of the fish-out-of-water story and the chick flick. Immigrant shopkeep Tilo (Rai) has brought her magical way with spices from the East to Oakland, Calif.; not just a vocation, her work is a full-on mystical calling. Charged at an early age with dispensing the outwardly ordinary spices that can determine a human being's health and fortunes, she's a natural clairvoyant who can see which product a customer needs and what the results will be. In exchange for these talents, Tilo has to live under some heavy restrictions: She's forbidden to touch another human's skin, use the spices for her own benefit or even leave the store for any reason.
That entire secret arrangement is put in jeopardy when Tilo falls for a handsome architect (Dylan McDermott), and her powers begin to wink out on her in retaliation. You've seen this magic-retailer-in-love conceit before, in Chocolat, and if you found that film unnecessarily treacly, nothing that's going on here is more likely to win your favor. In addition, the supporting cast is wildly inconsistent: Beneficiaries of Tilo's indulgence range from the ever-beguiling Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko on TV's Lost) to a succession of character "actors" who can barely deliver a line credibly. But Rai remains one of the most winsome women in cinema, and the inventive cinematography compensates rather handily for the fact that the action takes place largely in a single location. Spices is an interesting experiment, if only a marginally successful one.
(11:30 a.m. Saturday, June 10; 7 p.m. Monday, June 12)
Bombay Calling *** (NR)
The National Film Board of Canada looks down the phone lines to Bombay, where an exploding workforce of telemarketers is changing the way global corporate interests pester the common man. But the nuisance of in-home solicitation is only a subtheme of the documentary Bombay Calling, in which an apparently typical Indian call center becomes a metaphor for the pros and cons of Westernization.
Staffed largely by students in search of funding for (or even an alternative to) their educations, the so-called Epicenter offers a monthly salary many times the country's average, all for sitting at a desk and badgering foreigners into changing their personal business arrangements. (The stars of the film are attempting to lure phone customers away from British Telecom.) The money is seductively good and the work available to anyone with a halfway-decent command of English. Experts like office manager Sam profit by understanding the subtle distinctions of Western dialects and dispositions (Texans, we're not surprised to learn, are ruder than the English); meanwhile, the less-seasoned employees undergo cultural-training sessions based on vital documents like Crocodile Dundee. The effect is of course humorous, though the film makes a convincing point that any enforced international understanding is a good thing. Having to listen to cash-strapped Americans haggle over their every expenditure, for example, is said to strip young Indians of their illusions that the streets of the U.S. are paved in gold.
Bombay Calling doesn't have much of a story arc, and its 72 minutes are padded with banal time-lapse shots of busy highways (to symbolize, see, that Bombay is a city on the move). No single participant emerges as a fully rounded character, though as character types, they're consistently surprising. One telemarketer, a self-professed ladies' man, is also a devout Roman Catholic who keeps images of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin in his cubicle. Perhaps the most aggressive of the lot — Sweetlana, aka "Sweetie" — comes from a poor rural community and is trying to eke out a better standard of living for her entire family. We accompany her on a visit home, where she's seen huddled in front of a TV that just happens to be tuned to Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Who? Take a wild guess.
(The documentary is preceded by "Lucky" `NR`, an affecting 20-minute narrative short in which a racist Indian woman becomes a surrogate mother to a child orphaned by AIDS. It's worth getting there on time to see.)
(11:15 a.m. Sunday, June 11)
Amu ** (NR)
In case you were under the impression that the world is filled with Deepa Mehtas, here's proof that a burning historical issue doesn't necessarily make for an enjoyable film. Writer/director Shonali Bose, her passion far out in advance of her skills, spins the oh-so-symbolic tale of an Indian-born Californian (Konkona Sen Sharma) who rediscovers her past while on a trip to New Delhi. An orphan raised in a loving adoptive household, the outwardly happy Kaju finds her traveler's elation being undone by visions of mysterious figures and recurring feelings of unease. As she learns, that inner turmoil has quite a bit to do with the indiscriminate massacre of Sikhs that followed the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi — a historical detail that was previously as unknown to her as her real parentage.
The personification of a cultural evil puts the movie in thematic company with Caché (there's even a similar climactic long shot), but in terms of sophistication, the two films are miles apart. Amu veers from civic-minded psychodrama to Gen-Y melodrama, periodically working a dull subplot that has Kaju finding romance with a haughty native boy. (For a while, you'll worry that you're being asked to sit through the umpteenth retread of Pride and Prejudice.)
Though the visual images of New Delhi can be strong, the writing is clunky, the acting amateurish, the pace deadly and the assembly haphazard. (There has to be a word for the frustration that ensues when an editor ends a scene by cutting off a line of dialogue you weren't especially interested in hearing anyway.) In several places, the script seems to telegraph a plot point that never actually transpires. Maybe Bose got tired at the 102-minute mark and decided to pull the plug on the whole thing. If so, she sure
wasn't the first one to tune out.
(1:45 p.m. Saturday, June 10)
SOUTH ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL
Saturday - Monday, June 10-12
Enzian Theater, Maitland (407) 629-0054; (407) 333-3667
$9; series pass $firstname.lastname@example.org