Movie WaterWater is the third of Indo-Canadian director, ‘s Elements trilogy of women in India.  Fire was produced in 1996, Earth in 1998 and Water in 2005.  All are beautifully designed and filmed but it’s clear that Water has gained by her experience.  Despite the main location being a poor widow’s ashram with peeling paint, little light and poor circumstances, the colors are magnificent, the lighting of interiors, bodies and head exquisite.  At times it is quite stunning.  I didn’t find it distracting but the recurring question of beauty in the service of stories of exploitation and sorrow does hover. (Seen especially in questions about Sebastian Salgado’s photography,  or in Jaques Rivette’s famous take down of Gilo Pontecorvo  ‘art shot’ of an escape from a concentration camp in his 1960 Kapo.)

Though Mehta is always interested in women as they live in the world, and especially in India, in Water this is unmistakable.  There is no surrounding family or group of friends through which one or two women are navigating.  The entire cast, save a swami and a prince-like suitor, are women.  In the ashram are only women — which is not to say all is womanly and warm.

Little Chuyia [] is brought by her father to the ashram, widowed days after her marriage at the age of 8 to a much older men, who has died of a heart attack.  The child is so young she does not even know what marriage is.   But, in India, she is a widow and according to fundamentalist readings of the Manusmriti sacred texts, is herself half-dead, having been joined to a man and given up her self. 

The Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu text, says that in life a woman is half her husband and if he dies, she is half dead. A widow has three choices: she can throw herself on his funeral pyre and die with him; she can marry his brother, if one is available; or she can live out the rest of her days in isolation and seclusion. If she chooses the latter, the ascetic path, she enters an ashram, shaves her head, wears white as a sign of mourning, and tries to atone for her husband’s death. [Here and here.]

The social belief is so strong –being touched by a widow requires a ritual cleansing for some–   and the economic consequences of having to feed the child again so dire,  that mother and father cannot keep her.  The senior widow,  Madhumati [Manorma], quite well known in Indian films, is an over weight, domineering and cunning woman. Though not without a few moments of kindness, she expects the child to behave and eventually contribute to the support of the house, which as we find out is the obligation of the younger, prettier, widows.

Movie water_span

Chuyia, first protected by the devout Shakuntula [Seema Biswas], quickly turns to Kalyani, [ Lisa Rani Ray ] the only  one of the woman allowed to keep her hair, and long and beautiful it is.  She takes the youngster in and shares her puppy — also due to her favored status.  The two share a friendship, talking in private, washing in the river, until the run away puppy leads Chuyia on a wild chase through the market where she stumbles into Narayan [] a veritable prince charming.  Led back to Kalyani it is love at first sight.  Sweet encounters lead to growing love but when he takes her to meet his Brahmin family the inevitable happens.  Recognizing the house she will not go with him and fate takes its turn.

Two interesting threads localize the story in time and place even more.  The ashram mother’s ‘pimp’ is Gulabi [Raghuveer Yadova], a hijra, the inclusive word for cross-dressers, transsexuals and even eunuchs.  Colorful and engaging, a gossip and purveyor of ganja, in other circumstances an interesting window into the demimonde, here she is the plyer of a despicable trade.  And it is she who lifts the second thread — Gandhi and his campaign to modernize India, then on its way to liberation from British rule. As well as speaking against the concept of “untouchability” he has argued against the stigmatization of widows.  There is no reason they should not re-marry.  Chattering away to Madhumati she says,

“That  Gandhi…coming from the jungles of Africa and upsetting India…”

Later Narayan’s own mother says to her son, who is engaged in the Gandhian struggle,

“Gandhi’s making you crazy…How can you marry a widow?”

The uplifting, if improbable,  ending involves the Mahatma himself, making a whistle stop tour across the sub-continent.

 After the release of Fire in 1996 the Hindu extreme right kept its eyes on Mehta.  Even though Water was being filmed 8 years later, crowds attacked the sets in Varanasi, a place where widow houses still exist, and eventually closed down production.

The day before filming was due to begin, the crew was informed that there were a few complications with gaining location permits. The following day we were greeted with the news that 2,000 protesters had stormed the ghats, destroying the main film set, burning and throwing it into the holy river. Protesters burnt effigies of Deepa Mehta, and threats to her life began.

There were three main political/religious parties leading the angry mob: the BJP( Bharatiya Janata Party), the VHU (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), both well established groups within the state of Uttar Pradesh; and the KSRSS (Kashi Sanskrit Raksha Sangharsh Samiti), a party formed overnight from the RSS (Raksha Sangharsh Samiti) specifically targeting Deepa Mehta. The KSRSS claimed their role was as the guardians of the culture of Varanasi and came forward with threats of violence against her, the head of the RSS approaching press with statements to support this:

“Breaking up the sets was far too mild an act, the people involved with the film should have been beaten black and blue. They come with foreign money to make a film which shows India in poor light because that is what sells in the west. The west refuses to acknowledge our achievements in any sphere, but is only interested in our snake charmers and child brides. And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them.” (The Week magazine, India, Feb 13th, 2000)

Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan

Water was eventually filmed in Sri Lanka which, as Mehta points out in director’s notes on the DVD, is predominantly a Buddhist country.  The entire Hindu-India we see in the movie were sets created along a Sri Lankan river.  And more astounding is that  Sarala, who plays the little girl Chuyia, was cast in Sri Lanka.  She did not speak a word of Hindi or English and memorized the script line by line. Mehta says she directed her mostly by hand gestures, facial indicators and one imagines a lot of miming and patience. 

Though there are parts one wishes were a bit richer — what is Kalyani’s back story?  Could the ‘johns’ been more than cut-outs?– the movie is compelling.  It rewards with news about lives we had no idea of before seeing, and uses a palate of colors and sensual camera work  that make up for the sometimes thin script.

 There is a lovely Hamilton Mehta productions web page with stills and trailers from most of Mehta’s movies, and here a blog created during the filming.