dir: Deepa Mehta
[img_assist|nid=931|title=Praying not to be a woman or at least a widow in the next life|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=422|height=437]
A little girl at the age of eight becomes a widow during the latter part of the 1930s. Hindu holy texts dictate widows can never remarry, and must live in seclusion for the rest of their days, to be punished for the sin of having their husband’s die. Or, they can perish upon their husband’s funeral pyre. Or, even better, they can marry their husband’s younger brother. Talk about having an abundance of options in your life.

Chuyia (Sarala) is sent to an ashram filled to the brim with women whose husbands are long dead. An ancient widow, Auntie (Vidula Javalgekar), recalls the sweets served at her wedding when she was seven, with longing, despite the fact (or maybe because of it) that she’s toothless, and easily in her eighties, and has spent most of her life as a widow.

The widows, who wear white saris and have their hair cut very short to mark their status, are ruled by one of the eldest and fattest of their number, Madhumati (Manorama) who eats fried food forbidden to widows whilst the others starve, and doesn’t mind a bit of dope every now and then. The rest of them live miserable lives overflowing with bitterness and regret. The most they hope for is to die and be reincarnated as men.

Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a young and beautiful widow, is the ashram’s top earner, being sent to work as a prostitute at the homes of the wealthy Brahmans across the river. She is the only one who gets to keep her hair long. As in all Indian stories, caste, the complex social / cultural class system, plays a key role. By virtue of being widows, the women are members of one of the lowest castes around. A priest tells one of the women down at the river, performing her morning ablutions, not to allow her shadow to touch a bride-to-be, because it would bring bad luck upon their marriage.

Worship and ritual suffuse every element of their daily lives, not only those of the widows, but everyone living in the holy city of Varanasi, which is in north-eastern India. The river’s water is more than just crucial to their drinking needs, apart from bathing in it, it is where every ceremony and action takes place. The water of the Ganges itself is holy, and used to bless, to protect, and to pray.

Every wall has a religious symbol on it (it’s quite weird to see swastikas, the original, unevil kind, frequently represented), with shrines and statues every few metres. These are intensely spiritual people. There’s an upside to that. Of course, there’s also a pretty nasty downside. Especially in terms of the hypocrisy endemic in its application against people.

The fact that the circumstances of their lives is patently unfair is not lost on any of the women, but most of them are resigned to the fact that there is nothing they can do about it. The pressure of cultural tradition, and their low status in Hindu society means there’s little they can do about anything. Elsewhere in the country, Mohandas Gandhi and his followers are trying to bring about an end both to British rule and to the unjust social and political structures embedded in the cultures and traditions of the country.

A young, educated man caught up in the revolutionary spirit of the time, despairs of the ignorance and superstition that pervades the community around him, and hopes for better days through change. Narayana (John Abraham) is a law student from a Brahman family, whose parents have little motivation in courting a transformation of society since they’re happy to be at the top of it, with the multitudes teeming beneath them. We know Narayana is super-smart and modern because he wears stylish glasses. Remember, the only people who wear glasses in movies, regardless of the culture, are brainiacs, nerds and sexy women about to take the glasses off in order to transform from Plain Jane to Super Strumpet.

With Chuyia’s help, he crosses paths with Kalyani, and of course, falls in love with her and her plight. So the scene is set, the tension elevates, for the clash between cultural constraints, religious belief, and the modern sensibility begging people to abandon many of the injustices and stupidities of the past.

So, there’s plenty of flute playing and poetry quoting along the way. No, they’re not euphemisms. Their relationship starts because, hell, they’re the youngest and most attractive adults in the film. But where it could have devolved into melodrama, the movie keeps their story meaningful, making their relationship, by the end, quite powerful.

Chuyia, in the way of all children, is too young to grasp the value and imposed importance of conforming to tradition, barrelling through the ashram and people’s lives with little concern for precedence and the establishment. She is our ‘in’ into the story, as outsiders who come into a scenario flabbergasted by the madness of its rules, yearning for a way to break free even as we learn more of the reasons for its persistance.

Deepa Mehta’s three films, Fire, Earth and Water have managed to tell three compelling, and in the case of Water, astoundingly beautiful stories about Indian culture and life over the last century, especially focussed on the lot of women in a culture that really doesn’t value them that much. Especially, in Water, we see the set up of a traditional religious practice (the isolation of widows) justified as a sacred requirement, come into being purely out of greed.

The only real reason the practice continued for so long, and continues now, is because it gets rid of one mouth to feed. The concept that property rights wouldn’t be conferred upon a wife after her husband’s death benefits solely the other members of the husband’s family, and gets rid of someone not ‘really’ of the family. What an idiotic set of circumstances need to be enshrined in custom for such a situation to arise and continue.

The people keep speaking of Gandhi and his progress throughout the country and throughout the public consciousness. Though a peripheral element, his march for the emancipation of India parallels the path of certain characters on their road to wherever it is they are meant to be going.

What’s funniest about the way he is used is the manner in which even those at the bottom of a caste society, such as the widow tyrant and her eunuch pimp who takes Kalyani on her tricks, mock Gandhi’s beliefs regarding how all, including the lowest caste of them all, the Untouchables, are children of God. Even eunuchs and obese widow pariahs have to feel superior to someone else, I guess.

The plight of the widows overall is quite poignant, but the lives of the particular people we are introduced to are even more affecting. Some might assume, being an Indian film, that it would be susceptible to explosions into song and dance routines at the drop of a pappadam like some Bollywood extravaganza. It’s nothing like that at all.

It is a beautifully made film, with water, unsurprisingly, being used for its symbolic, thematic and literal value. But colours as well and scenery are used to their best effect. The actors acquit themselves well, playing it very straight, in some cases almost underplaying it (to distance themselves from more traditional Indian fare, perhaps). Though the makers intended to film Water in Varanasi initially, death threats and vandalism forced them to move the shoot to Sri Lanka, since some Hindu traditionalists aren’t keen fans of Mehta’s work. I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

Especially good is Seema Biswas as Shakuntala, as one of the widows who exists as an intermediary between the old world and the new. She seeks solace from her plight by devoting herself to rituals meant to aid her on the path to self-liberation (the relinquishment of worldly desires), but still sees that the path before Kalyani and Chuyia must be different from her own. Anyone who marvelled at Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen over a decade ago may remember Seema as the Queen herself, Phoolan Devi. She’s great here: world-weary, but having lost none of her compassion no matter what life has thrown at her. Her actions throughout the film, especially towards the end, bring tears to my eyes solely in their contemplation.

Chuyia, played by Sri Lankan child Sarala, is delightful and charming. And she’s a kid. It’s amazing that she could give such an entertaining and affecting performance, despite not speaking Hindi at all and having to memorise the dialogue phonetically. It is her fate that we are most invested in; for her we hope most the liberation that comes from the casting aside of injustice can come soon enough to save her from an awful fate.

I loved this film. I am aware of its flaws, but I am aware of the flaws and imperfections of many things and many people that I love, and I love them none the less for it. In Water, I feel Mehta achieved a perfect balance between the beauty of life, and the horror of what people are compelled to do by custom, between light and dark, between carrying the baggage of the past and abandoning it for the hope of the future, between the political and the personal. I can hope for little more from any film.

8 times that I try to live like the water lily, that grows pure above the filthy water beneath it out of 10

“You brushed against me. Now I’m going to have to wash myself all over again.” – Water.