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Water – A Compelling Movie On Women By Deepa Mehta

Posted: May 21, 2019

I think it’s really important not to be so judgmental and not to be so fearful. Try to have confidence in yourself. Don’t depend so much on what others say about you or want you to be”.

-Deepa Mehta

Deepa Mehta is an Indo – Canadian film maker best known for her Elements Trilogy, ‘Fire’, ‘Earth’ and ‘Water’. The storyline of Fire (1996) revolves around the life of two married women ignored and snubbed by their husbands who fall in love with each other. Earth (1998) cornerstones testing time and tolerance between Hindu, Muslim and Sikh friends during the partition of India and Pakistan. Water (2005) which is set in Varanasi, India and representing the pre independence era is the third of the trilogy. Though in all her movies she triggers the grey cells of audiences by plots which speak of feminism, women oppression, prostitution, male tyranny and widowhood; I in this essay will speak only of the movie ‘Water’ which was considered controversial and whose production was stalled in Varanasi by religious fanatics. The entire production set had to be moved to Srilanka where the film was finally completed.

Set in the pre independence era, this film takes us back to year 1938 and illustrates the punishing life experienced by Hindu widows. It is a poignant story which revolves mainly among three characters – Kalyani (Lisa Ray), Chuyia (Sarala) and Shakuntala (Seema Biswas). According to the ancient Hindu text, The Manusmriti, the life of a woman is half her husband and if he dies, she is half dead. The widow has three choices either she can throw herself in the funeral pyre along with the dead husband and die with him which we call SATI or she can marry his brother if the family allows and also if one is available. The movie is based on the third option for the widows which indicates shaving off her hair, entering an ashram, wearing white as a sign of keening for the dead husband and leading a life of solitude for the rest of her life.

The storyline goes like this.  Chuyia, a charming little girl of eight years who had just been widowed had been abandoned in the ashram to live a life of austerity along with the other women of different ages but of same fate. Chuyia’s marriage was arranged by her family due to financial constraints and she doesn’t even recollect her marriage and yearns for her mother to take her home. In the ashram she is tonsured, dressed in a white robe, sleeps on a thin mat with other elder ladies whose mundane lives have been spent in abdication. Each day starts with the widows singing religious hymns and begging in the streets for money. Caste dynamics, male despotism and misogyny has been showcased in scenes showing Hindus avoiding these widows, lest they get polluted and have to conduct rituals of purification for themselves. Chuyia gradually comes in terms with the rules of the ashram where she meets Shakuntala a pious widow who emerges from being a staunch Hindu devotee woman to a woman who starts challenging the harsh traditions and takes the naïve Chuyia under her care. She is the one who ultimately liberates Chuyia.

Chuyia makes friendship with Patiraji whose memories goes back to her wedding days. No, she doesn’t recall her parents or her husband but the lavish meal and the laddoos she had on that day for the last time. She keeps telling Chuyia “Life is so disappointing”. She dies the very day when she eats a laddoo given to her by Chuyia. A frightened and saddened Chuyia thinks she has committed a sin by offering that laddoo and tells everything to Shakuntala, to which Shakuntala replies “Don’t worry. Bua will go to heaven after eating the laddoo. And if God wills, she will born as a man in her next life.” Such was the piteous state of widows during those colonial times and Chuyia was also not spared from such a disgusting life. Mehta has brilliantly captured the sorry state of the widows in her movie.

In the ashram Chuyia meets Kalyani, a beautiful young widow who has been forced to prostitution by the head of the ashram, Madhumati (Manorama). Kalyani is the only woman who is allowed to keep long hair for the disturbing reason but she is shunned by the other widows. Chuyia befriends Kalyani who invites her to the second floor of the ashram and play with her dog.

Gulaabi (Raghubir Yadav) is a eunuch pimp who gets the customers for Kalyani including married men. So here we can see Mehta focusing on intersectionality and questions the audiences about the cruel fate of a eunuch.  It also urges the masses to ask themselves how little the life of transgender has changed over the past decades with prostitution and begging being their principal employment.

One of the major reasons why this movie angered the fanatics was due to the fact casteism was portrayed in the entire movie. The Brahmin widows were given prestige and respect. Also it was believed that the Brahmin men can sleep with any woman they want and in return that woman with whom he has slept will be blessed.

It is through Chuyia that Kalyani meets Narayan (John Abraham), a fresh law graduate and an ardent follower of Gandhiji. Narayan challenges the jarring treatment of women and the caste system which angers Hindu fundamentalists. But to the widows and other outcasts, he is a beacon of hope. Love kindles between the two but the marriage never happens when Kalyani realizes Narayan’s father had been one of her customer. The love story has a tragic end with Madhumati chopping off Kalyani’s hair to stop her from marrying Narayan and Kalyani unable to embrace such a raspy reality committing suicide.

It is important to mention that the film also has some strong men characters that play crucial role in the movie. Narayan who questions the status quo, Guru (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) who informs Shakuntala about the new law on widow remarriage that prodded her to support Kalyani to remarry, and of course, Gandhiji. With this new law of remarriage Shakuntala also realizes that there might be future for Chuyia rather than this tragic life in the ashram. It is in the end of the movie Shakuntala’s valor is projected where she frees Chuyia and hands her over to Narayan with a new hope for a better life.

In an interview, Deepa Mehta stated: “Water can flow or water can be stagnant. I set the film in the 1930s but the people in the film live their lives as it was prescribed by a religious text more than 2,000 years old. Even today, people follow these texts, which is one reason why there continue to be millions of widows. To me, that is a kind of stagnant water. I think traditions shouldn’t be that rigid. They should flow like the replenishing kind of water.”

Water depicts the terrible damage that can be done to the human spirit when jingoistic religious rules and texts are treated as inviolable. The inhumane treatment of widows in India is similar to the subjugation of women by fundamentalist elsewhere. It is appalling to see religion used to deny the dignity and rights of women. Deepa Mehta has done all women an immense service by making this extraordinary film about the liberation their sisters yearn for with their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.

In Deepa Mehta’s words “To make ‘Water’ was akin to climbing Everest; a hard journey. But where to go from there? Having Fox Searchlight distribute the film in the U.S. is like finding a stairway to Heaven. I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Deepa Mehta’s Water was inaugurated in the Toronto International Film Festival in year 2005. It was in the year 2006 it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.

The image is a still from the movie Water

Rimli Bhattacharya is a First class gold medalist in Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of

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  1. Pingback: ‘Water’ Angered Fanatics Because It Told The Truth About Outdated Indian Traditions – Rimlismusings

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