Meanwhile I've been surprised by some culturally clueless and simply inaccurate comments from reviewers.
1. First, the hands-down most facile, offensive, goofy comment I've seen in any movie review this year comes from "Metromix," affiliated with the Chicago Tribune. At the tail end of an almost laughably abbreviated summary, the reviewer tries to gear up readers for the film with a fashion-oriented tagline: "Bonus: Gear up for that summer 'do: The widows all have buzz cuts."
"The widows all have buzz cuts." Wow. That one sentence couples the triviality of the film review business with a shocking level of ignorance. I know these folks have short deadlines for copy, but could they at least look up something on the subject of Hindu mourning rituals before publishing a review of a film on Hindu widows?
On the other hand, it might be offensive, but at least "All the widows have buzz cuts" is pithy and sharp -- the kind of outlandish thing you expect the "naughty" character in a Salman Rushdie novel to say.
2. Fundamentalism or Tradition?
Another oddity from some of the reviews is the abuse of the word "fundamentalist." "Fundamentalism" is pretty appropriate if you're referring to what happened in 2000, when RSS goons with the support of the UP government attacked Deepa Mehta's set in Benares, destroying her equipment. (The NDA government did nothing to punish any of the offenders; many people involved in the protests were party leaders and relatives of government ministers.) But "fundamentalist" isn't quite accurate to describe the setting of the film:
There is a tradition within fundamentalist Hinduism that when a woman is widowed, she has three options: (1) to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, (2) to marry his brother (if he has one and it is permitted by the family), or (3) to live in poverty in a group home for widows. Although Water transpires in 1938, an endnote indicates that this practice has not been entirely abolished in India. (link)
The reviewer flings around the word "fundamentalist" with abandon, but it's sloppy. The word doesn't fit the context of widowhood in 1930s India at all: "traditional Hinduism" or "Hindu custom" are phrases that would be more appropriate.
3. Who said anything about Sati?>
Check out these lines from the Washington Post review:
The subject is the issue of "widow wastage." Possibly no term exists in English to convey the cultural tradition; it's a kind of continuation, by less fiery means, of sati, the practice of immolating a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. As writer-director Deepa Mehta dramatizes it, when a man dies, his widow is a financial burden to all. Thus she is consigned to an ashram, a kind of rooming house/prison for widows. (link)
Huh? There is a kind of logical connection here -- widows' ashrams and Sati are both troubling, archaic practices -- but they are still two very different traditions with different symbolic meanings.
4. Depends on what your definition of "is" is>
The New York Times ran a somewhat unusual story about Water earlier this week, "Film Ignites The Wrath of Hindu Fundamentalists." Though the title suggests the controversy is occurring in the present, the actual article refers again to the sacking of Mehta's set in Benares in 2000. There is no current controversy over the film in India, because the film hasn't been released there.
Water is scheduled for a limited release in India (90 screens) in July, and there may well be are more protests, riots, or theater burnings (as in Mehta's earlier film Fire, 1996). This time I hope the central government won't just stand by and let "mob censorship" take its mindless toll.