Directed by Deepa Mehta, starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham and Sarala Kariyawasam
(Deepa Mehta Films)
Of the three films that make up Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s trilogy about India’s struggle to reconcile past and present, none probes deeper into the country’s conflicted soul than Water, a searing indictment of the patriarchal underpinnings of Hindu fundamentalism in the waning days of the British Raj.
The opening film in the trilogy, Fire (1996), was the first Indian film to deal openly with homosexuality. The second, Earth (1998), depicted the violent turmoil that followed the partition of India in 1947. Set in the northern city of Varanasi in 1938, Water (2005) explores the institutionalized oppression of women.
Following an ancient orthodox custom, a child named Chuyia is married to an older man. She is only eight when he dies and has little memory of him or her wedding. Yet she is sent, terrified, to live in an ashram for widows — her penalty for sins supposedly committed in a previous life that led to her husband’s untimely death.
Under traditional Hindu law, she must spend the rest of her life in the ashram, atoning for bad karma. But religious laws cannot prevent her from forming close ties with other widows. One is the wise Shakuntala, a holy man’s assistant who questions religious traditions that turn innocent widows into lifelong outcasts. Another is Kalyani, a beautiful young woman who is sold into prostitution by the ashram’s domineering headmistress. Through Chuyia, Kalyani meets a handsome young law student who’s a passionate follower of Gandhi.
They fall in love, their affair a defiant challenge to the status quo that exacts a tragic cost. Yet their love also inspires a selfless act of bravery, pointing to a more hopeful and just future for widows like Chuyia, for women generally and for India itself.
The film unfolds poetically amid lush hues bathed in golden light. The exquisite beauty of the finished product contrasts starkly with the ugliness that attended its making. Protesters destroyed the main film set before shooting even began, and Mehta received numerous death threats. Only after changing the title and cast and moving the production to Sri Lanka was she able to complete the film. That it was made at all is a testimony to her courage. It’s more than apt that courage in the face of religious oppression should form one of the film’s central themes.
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