Child Bride: Young Chuyia (Sarala) was widowed too soon in 'Water.'
In 'Water,' Deepa Mehta evokes the fate of widows in pre-Gandhi India—and today
By Richard von Busack
DEEPA MEHTA'S new film is as visually supple and full of unexpected humor as her previous films Earth and Fire. Reasonable as it is, Water was enough to cause violent protests in India, so much so that that Mehta had to film in Sri Lanka under an assumed title.
From the point of view of U.S. audiences, it's hard to understand what the fuss is about. Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), one of the three heroines, is quite devout, gaining strength from the teachings of a Hindu holy man. Yet there was enough controversy during Water's filming that the sets were stormed and burned by a mob of 2,000 protestors.
In 1938, India is trembling on the verge of the independence that will come in the next decade. Chuyia (played by a beguiling child actress with one beguiling name, Sarala) is both a little girl and a widow. She has a polluting touch, and even when her shadow falls on a passer-by, it's bad luck.
Chuyia's relatives are depositing her into an ashram, more popularly known as a widow's house. In essence, it's a minimum-security prison, as demonstrated by the ritual breaking of Chuyia's glass bangles and by the shaving of her head. The situation of this girl, too young to remember her marriage and her husband, is mirrored by the widow-house's oldest inhabitant: Chuyia's companion is an old crone who can remember very little except for the sweets served at her wedding, so many decades before.
Running the place is Madhumati (Manorama), a real Dickens-style villain, a mountainous lump of flesh with fat, wobbling arms. She dotes over her diseased-looking parrot, feeding it treats while the other inmates go without.
While the situation is bleak, Mehta sweetens it with romance—the doomed kind. The most beautiful of the widows and the only one allowed to keep her hair is Kalyani (Lisa Ray). On her errands in the town, she meets a scholarly Brahmin named Narayan (John Abraham), who is aware of the revolutionary work of Mahatma Gandhi. It's only later that the truth comes out: Kalyani is being forced into prostitution to support the ashram.
One of the advantages of Water is the way Mehta delivers up a quick passage to India; the land and waterscapes are sublime. Certainly, she's not out to grind an ax about her native country. Mehta finds moments of pleasure throughout, in little things like a flash of vermilion when turmeric spice is dusted over the child's shaven head as a remedy. And the ashram celebrates a festival of color, scattering mauve and crimson pigments.
Despite the sometimes Victorian plotting, Water isn't monochrome or muddy, even when the sets are being drenched during the monsoons. Lisa Ray, who plays Kalyani, is very lissome, like Jean Simmons or the India-born Vivien Leigh. Still, at this point Ray has to be described as a ravishing nonactress who could really ascend with some training.
Mehta's limpid style seems all the more cool when contrasted with the stridency of the recently released melodrama White Rainbow. What the two films demonstrate is how little has changed in India since the 1930s. It is still the custom to shut away widows, because of ancient writ and even more ancient superstition.
It is easy to anticipate the arguments: ashrams are more humane than widow burning. And until the recent centuries, it was the custom in Europe for the widows in well-off families to enter nunneries; a custom that often had more to do with money than piety. But Mehta stresses the second-class status of widowhood, as does the recent White Rainbow.
Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan, camera assistant on Water, notes on the Bright Lights Film Journal website (Brightlightsfilm.com) that one of the locations Mehta had originally chose for the film was a multistory widow house that also serves as an upscale hostelry for outsiders visiting the Ganges. Yuen-Carrucan writes, "Tourists sleep in their luxury surroundings ignorant of the fact that below them women are starving. Even the travelers' bible, The Lonely Planet Guide to India, has remained oblivious to this and continues to promote 'Ganapathi' guest house on [the] Meer ghat."
It's not the place of the West to dictate Indian customs. For that matter, wishing away unpleasant news is more of a human problem than an Indian one. Water begins with a quote from the ancient Vedic law of Pandit Manu, claiming that a widow who dishonors her husband shall be reborn as a jackal. That this law of the Brahmins is still taken seriously enough to cause a riot—or rather, that it is interpreted as meaning that widows should be shunned—is all part of the worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism. Essentially mild as it is, Mehta's film struggles against the dead hand of the past.
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