The currents in feminist filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s beautiful Water run deep.
When the film’s set was destroyed by a mob in India and the cast and crew threatened, the Canadian-Indian feminist filmmaker had no choice but to pull up stumps and start again. Water was to be the third film in her elements trilogy about Indian cultural taboos.
Deepa Mehta had already immigrated to Canada when life in India became creatively impossible. Conservative Hindus had kicked up a stink over Fire, the trilogy’s first film which portrayed the unimaginable -“ a love affair between two women.
The second film, Earth, drew parallels between the 1947 partition of India and the Nazi Holocaust.
The evocative and sadly beautiful Water, which tackles the controversial treatment of widows in India, was eventually filmed in secret five years later in nearby Sri Lanka.
At its core is the cruel 2,000-year-old Hindu scripture which decrees that when her husband dies, a woman must either join him in death or be banished to a widows colony to spend the rest of her life in poverty without family or friends or worldly possessions. Above all, she is forbidden to remarry.
It is 1938 and the husband of Chuyia (Sarala) has died. The eight-year-old child bride barely understands what a husband is let alone what life for her as a young widow will hold.
When her head is shaved and her family abandons her at the comfortless widows ashram, Chuyia is devastated and she rails against the ashram’s piggish matriarch Madhumati (Manorama).
But the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) takes the small girl under her wing. She too was widowed as a child, even before she met her husband.
Unlike the other widows, she sleeps in the ashram’s loft and Madhumati allows her to keep her hair long, if only to increase her value to the local eunuch who pimps the fair-skinned beauty to the town’s rich men.
Yet India is on the brink of change. The pacifist Mahatma Gandhi is agitating for independence from Britain and a better life for widows and the Untouchables, the lowest Hindu caste.
Even the other widows -“ among them the high-caste Brahmin widow Shakuntala (Bandit Queen‘s Seema Biswas) -“ are sadly too isolated to know that the wind is with them.
When Narayana (John Abraham), a young lawyer and follower of Gandhi, falls for the shy Kalyani, the widows’ world both expands and caves tragically in.
Water is a truly moving journey into the inner world of women abandoned for the sake of an ancient out-dated law. In the film’s footnote, Mehta says that ashrams like the one in Water continue to exist and the lives of many women in Indian society are still shattered by their widowhood.