Director: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Sarala Kariyawasam, Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray
Whatever your feelings about Deepa Mehta's politics - and she has some pretty fierce critics on both the right side and the left side of the political spectrum - it's hard to argue that her films don't resonate. If they didn't, they wouldn't provoke such intense feelings. With Water, the final chapter in her Elements Trilogy which also includes Fire amd Earth, Mehta explores, as she often does, the position of women within society, looking specifically this time at the position of widowed women in India during the British Raj.
The story's focus is on Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam) who, at eight years old, has already been married off (though she hasn't started living as a wife yet) and is now widowed. In keeping with orthodox Hindu tradition, she is sent to live at a widow's ashram where she will spend the rest of her life atoning for the sins of her past which caused her husband's death. This sounds like forced logic and it is, as a character explains later in the film that widows ashrams have less to do with religion than with economics. Without a husband to support her, a widow becomes a burden to the family and so to relieve that burden, she's sent away under the guise of performing a religious necessicity.
The ashram is run by Madhumati (Manorama), who rules with an iron fist and is friends with a transvestite pimp, Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav) who helps her prositute Kalyani (Lisa Ray), one of the other widows. The story is split between Chuyia's difficult adjustment to life at the ashram and Kalyani's experiences as a prostitute and her budding (and, of course, doomed) relationship with Narayan (John Abraham), a follower of Gandhi. The fallout from that forbidden relationship has harsh consequences for everyone, including Chuyia in the film's devastating finale.
The story of how Water managed to get made is epic in and of itself. In 2000 Mehta, a lightning rod for controversy ever since Fire, met with hostility from right wing elements in India over the subject matter of her new film. Protestors destroyed sets, permits for location shooting were withdrawn and she was eventually forced to move the production to Sri Lanka, where she had to film under a false title and with a new cast in order to complete it. Given how critical her films are of cultural traditions and mores, particularly as they relate to women, it's not difficult to understand why she attracts controversy even if the sheer level of hositlity directed towards her is ridiculously excessive and probably has the opposite effect than her detractors intend, in that it just brings more attention to the work they'd like to see suppressed. At the same time, however, she also has critics on the other side who argue that her narratives simplify the complex politics of post-colonial India and present women as passive victims needing to be saved.
Personally, speaking specifically of Water and bearing in mind that my knowledge of India's history and politics is scanty at best, I think the criticism of her female characters as passive is a bit shortsighted. The story takes place in 1938 under colonial rule and deals with a community adhering strictly to religious rules and traditions - that's pretty much a recipe for female disenfranchisement. Given that context, it's surprising how active some of the female characters actually are. Kalyani may have been forced into prostitution but when she decides to stop because she's fallen in love with Narayan, she does so and walks away from the ashram knowing that she has the power because they need her (for the economic support she brings) more than she needs them. Similarly, Shankuntala (Seema Biswas), one of the other widows, while devoutly religious is also very strong and not one to be triffled with. She is the one who ultimately rescues Chuyia, even if a great deal of damage has already been done at that point. While the women are all victims in one way or another (be it of abuse or of a socio-political system that deprives them of rights), I don't see this as a narrative about victimization. Rather, I see it as a narrative about women taking steps towards empowerment and agency, no matter how small those steps ultimately are.
Stepping away from the larger issues that the film deals with, I think the main reason that it resonates so clearly is because of the time Mehta takes to develop the relationships between the characters. I saw Water for the first time in 2005 and before watching it again recently, a scene that always stood out for me is one between Chuyia and Shankuntala wherin the latter asks how she looks and the former, in the blunt way of a child, states simply "old." The look on Shanktuntala's face at this response, the way that it expresses hurt and also perhaps jealousy because of the way Chuyia admires Kalyani's beauty, has always stuck with me. Scenes like that one make the film more than a political manifesto and allow it to become an actual story with characters you come to care about. It isn't Mehta's strongest work (I'm rather partial to Earth), but its value as a work of art is greater than any controversy it might attract.