Opening 7 Sep 2006
Water, the story of an eight year old Hindu widow, Chuyia (Sarala), is set in the time that Mahatma Gandhi was rising to power in 1938 colonial India. The common practice of young girls marrying older men often brought about the circumstance of mere children bound to the standing (unspoken) cultural law that all widows should live out the rest of their lives in penitence for their “sins”, away from society in special ashrams (institutions). The only other acceptable “choice” for a widow is to throw herself onto the funeral pyre of her deceased husband to absolve bad Karma. Despite the fact that the British colonial government established a law forbidding the practice of forcing widows into the pyre or ashrams, this practice is still followed today, thus inspiring director Deepa Mehta to choose this subject for Water, the last film in the trilogy including Fire (1996) and Earth (1998).
The long gap between films falls into a politically-charged religious battle in India between right-wing Hindi and the director’s controversial subject matter concerning women’s rights. The first attempt to film Water on the Ganges River invoked violent protests and disruption and had to be abandoned. Four years later, Mehta began fresh in Sri Lanka and Water was beautifully shot and released in Nov. 2005 to critical acclaim.
A sadness prevails throughout the film, not just as a knee-jerk response to child injustice, but rather as a result of an insightful character study of all the widows gathered in the ashram. The beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) is forced by the house matriarch to support the ashram by prostitution with the local gentry under the veil of nightly boat crossings. But it is the educated Shakuntala’s notably poignant role in the group (Seema Biswas) that underscores the fine line between hopelessness and devout adherence to Hindu practice. From a western perspective, we are not only appalled at the level of acceptance and hypocrisy required to sustain such a culture where this life is yoked onto women., but also by how cruel the hierarchy is among the widows themselves in their shunned society. (Kirstan Böttger)