A young married girl is about to lose her husband to a disease as the film begins. Once the husband has died, and despite her young age, she is now a widow and her options are limited.
- She could marry the younger brother of her dead husband.
- She could throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
- She could join an ashram and give the rest of her life to spiritual devotion.
According to the sacred texts:
- A window should be long-suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste.
- A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died, goes to heaven.
- A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal.
So say the Holy scriptures as written in the Dharamshastras.
Soon after the cremation, the young child-widow has her head shaved, she’s made to wear a basic and unadorned white garment, and is brought to a temple to live out her remaining life, in the company of other women in the same circumstances – that of being a widow.
They are isolated, men are not permitted in the ashram, and other than as beggars, or shopping for essentials, they infrequently mix with society
The date is 1938. The place is Benares now called Varanasi, India. The former young married female’s name is Chuyia. She is 8 years old.
The film is called Water (2005) and is the last film in a trilogy of elemental films, directed and written by Deepa Mehta. The other two titles are Earth (1998), and Fire (1996).
Now I will grant you that a film about the circumstances about widows in India, circa 1938, doesn’t exactly jump out as a ‘must see‘ movie. But this is more than a simple movie about ‘societal injustice‘.
Besides the young child-widow, there are three more characters that require your attention and concern.
The first is Kalyani, a twenty-something widow portrayed by Lisa Ray. Kalyani is the only widow that has been allowed to let her hair grow long, and beyond that, her beauty is luminous. There’s a reason why Kalyani has been allowed to remain attractive. It is that the senior woman in the ashram, the leader amongst the women who live there, has been making use of Kalyani by pimping her out, with the help of a eunuch as a go-between, as a prostitute. Kalyani ‘s beauty has long been admired by men in the area. Wealthy men desired her but since men are not permitted in the ashram, every thing that occurs between these men and Kalyani must be done off-site, with the go-between in for a percentage of the fees. Kalyani’s earning help the ashram survive.
The second character to watch for is a forty-something widow call Shakuntala. She’s played by Seema Biswas (above) who I saw and reviewed recently in the film called Cooking with Stella. Here she is a widow who is both a friend to both Chuyia and Kalyani. She is also devoted to her faith. Yet she is troubled by not only what is happening to the child/bride/widow Chuyia, as well as the commercial exploitation of Kalyani. But because she is devout in her religion, these events are bringing her to a crisis of faith. Shakuntala wished things were different, but they are so because they are written in the holy scriptures. So she struggled with her conscience.
The last of the main characters is a man called Narayan. He’s played by John Abraham. Narayan is a member of the highest caste in India and is follower of Gandhi. He is a lawyer and will return to his village, but before that, he has a chance encounter with Kalyani and he is smitten.
The questions posed by this film are quite serious. In fact Deepa Mehta was forced to move the production of the film totally out of India. In 2000, The film has been granted the requisite permissions and script approval by the government of India. But Hindu fundamentalists felt threatened by the film’s premise and view points regarding widows in India. Their views were based on religious texts that were written over two thousand years ago.
Deepa Mehta was denounced as anti-Hindu. Movie sets were thrown into the river. An effigy of Deepa Mehta was burned, and protesters of the film were marching in the streets. Despite the fact that the film’s script had not been made public, the protests continued. Mehta went to the state government for support, but none was given.
Amid personal death threats, civil unrest, and public violence, Mehta had to shut down the production. It took four more years for the film to be completed. The film required recasting and due to the ‘anguish, the death threats, politics, and the ugly face of religious fundamentalism with its high intolerance for anything or anyone that viewed it with skepticism’ [those are Deepa Mehta's words - not mine] the whole production was moved to Sri Lanka.
Deepa Mehta is no stranger to protests about her films. Her 1996 film, Fire, also had its own firestorm of protests, civil unrest, violence, and arrests. It became unsafe to go to any film house showing the movie. Political and legal wrangling followed. In fact, Fire made it all the way into India’s Supreme Court in a petition about seeking protection for many rights such as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religious practice and belief, and the right to hold peaceful meetings.
Water is a beautifully shot film. The colors are spectacular as are the performances. Take note of the child who played Chuyia. Her name is Sarala and this was her first performance as an actress, and the only one to date. Sarala, who was chosen over 50 other young girls for her naturalness, and Director Mehta had to overcome a large communication problem – Sarala did not speak either English or Hindi. Mehta did not speak the local Sri Lankan language. Yet, Sarala’s performance is a wonder to behold.
This is not an epic film, yet is quite memorable and powerful all without resorting to polemics and heavy-handed preachiness. I’ll rate it at three-point seven five – not for any deficiencies but because the plight of widows, as portrayed in the film, make us consider that the film is a period film, and while the situation of the plight of widows in India has improved, difficult situations can and do still exist.
Check out the trailer below.