Water flavored by controversy, Bollywood aesthetics

By Matt Johnston

Deepa Mehta’s Water is controversial only because there are still people in this world who believe that women ought to be treated as property. If anything, the film is too conservative, and yet it required unbelievable audacity to make even this mildly feminist version. Production was delayed several years when Hindu fundamentalists in India burned the main set in February 2000. The practiced inaction of the Indian government on the issue should serve as a special source of ignominy for its citizens and a sign that free speech has perhaps not progressed as far as we might hope. Mehta finished filming in Sri Lanka under a false title and in secret.

What is Mehta’s argument? What claim could she possibly make that would drive people to such shameful fanaticism? Only that widows should not be forced to live in isolated, celibate, poverty-stricken societies until the end of their days. Only that it is a ridiculous, backward society which condemns a seven-year-old girl, married to a man she has never met, to viduity for life at the time of her nominal husband’s death. If this is the system prescribed by any religious text, it is time to throw that text by the wayside.

Water’s real strength is the skillful way in which it complicates the classic, megapopular Bollywood formula. The songs are beautiful, the colors are rich, and the cinematography is wonderful. But now, instead of silly love stories, these elements are contrasted with the violence of the Indian tradition. Like their Bollywood counterparts, these characters are still obsessed with wedding feasts and dances, but as distant memories, not inevitable futures. The honeymoon is over, or, in the case of little Chuyia (Sarala), it never took place. She is woken up in the middle of the night. “Do you remember getting married?” asks her father. She shakes her head. “Your husband is dead. You are a widow now.”

They shave her head and send her off to an ashram. There she meets a dozen widows in various stages of sorrow and bitterness. Some remember their husbands; others do not. Their day-to-day existence is meager and monotonous. They beg for money on the streets and eat plain rice. Anything beyond that is both forbidden and financially impossible.

At the ashram, Chuyia meets Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who is a pariah even among pariahs. In a contradiction that seems typical of such “moral” codes used to oppress women, Kalyani is compelled into prostitution. The first bit of joy in her life comes in the form of Narayan (John Abraham), a young, idealistic, wealthy young man. He supports Gandhi and spouts social enlightenment. Further, he has a keen understanding of the economic underpinnings of such practices as locking widows away. A banished widow is “one less mouth to feed, four saris saved…. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.”

The film’s problems can mostly be attributed to the sequences with Narayan, which reveal a happy but naïve weakness for romance. All things considered, the love that blossoms is damn convenient for the screenplay. Now Kalyani must choose between obeying her cultural burdens and running off with a rich, smart, young man whom she just happens to fall in love with right off the bat.

The film rights itself before its conclusion, understanding that these are not stories with happy endings. But, for some time, the love interest is genuine and I was left wondering how it happens that Kalyani should be so lucky as to fall in love with the first man she meets. Construing this potential future as euphoria is damaging to a message of equality, since Kalyani is still very much at the mercy of men. What would happen to her if she did not love him? Would she pretend to love him in order to escape? Would he rescue her anyway? These are questions that Water does not ask. It wants a little love interest, so it has a little love interest.

That’s not a fatal mistake. All together, the film works quite well as a documentation of sexism in traditional Hindu society coupled with beautiful visual and musical production values. The contrast makes the story all the sadder, as it is clear that there is the potential for great joy, crushed by rigid strictures.

A title card at the end informs us that there are 34 million widows in India today, many of whom live in conditions similar to those in the film’s 1938 setting. How many? It could be dozens or millions; we are given no clue. Water works that way—it is a fine introduction to an important topic, but hopefully not the final or most articulate word we will hear on the matter.