3 Stars – Thought Provoking
Spiritual beliefs can be either a curse or a blessing. They can be a curse if they are used to create injustice and poverty. They can be a blessing if they are used to end injustice and care for the poor. They can be a curse if they enslave people in superstition and immobilize them in fear. They can be a blessing if they are grounded in truth and lift people up in hope. This lesson is poignantly portrayed in Deepa Metha’s final film of her trilogy, the visually and emotionally impactful “Water.”
Filmed in her native India until her set was destroyed by Hindu activists who were offended by her work, “Water” continues Metha’s unflinching portrayal of the religious and cultural life of India. Her first two films, “Fire” and “Earth,” dealt with the state of women in India and the political upheaval of the Pakistani separation. “Water” focuses on the traditional practice of isolating widows from their families and society upon their husbands’ deaths. Though no longer necessary by law, the film explores the three Hindu requirements for a woman of any age whose husband dies: She must either throw herself on the funeral pyre and die with him, a practice known as Sati which allows her to become a goddess and redeem her forbearers; or she must live in poverty without the opportunity of remarriage; or she must marry her husband’s brother (if the family permits). The British outlawed the practice of Sati but was unable to stop the “double-scorn” of the Hindu tradition. Today approximately 33 million widows are living in obscurity within the land.
The setting for “Water” is 1938 in the “holy city” of Varanasi on the “holy water” of the river Ganges. The ensemble cast is comprised of women who have been consigned by their families and society to live out the rest of their days as ascetics in an ashram. The youngest is Chuyia (Sarala), a seven year old whose husband dies immediately after their wedding. Her poverty-stricken mother and father shave her head and deliver her to the Ashram where an angry ruthless widow named Madhumati (Manorma) takes her off their hands.
Chuyia is quickly befriended by two very different widows. The first is a Hindu who lives in frustrated devotion as she attempts to live out her religious convictions. The second is a beautiful, young widow named Kalyani (Lisa Ray). It soon becomes clear that Madhumati has been using Kalyani as a prostitute for years to a wealthy Brahmin across the river who claims that the Hindu sacred texts allow him as a Brahmin to have sex with whomever he chooses.
Into this life of despair comes the son of the Brahmin named Narayan (John Abraham) who has just graduated from law school and is fascinated with the teachings of Mahatma Ghandhi. Happening upon Kalyani and Chuyia at the river, he is falls in love with the beautiful widow Kalyani and, though she informs him it is a sin the Hindu text calls it a sin, he longs for her hand in marriage. It is the outcome of this love which reveals the depth of sorrow in their land.
“Water” is a significant film for understanding the traditions and teachings of Hinduism. It is also significant in its authentic struggle with those beliefs. In a world seeking to know the truth about our spiritual longings, it is a thoughtful inclusion in the conversation.
- In the beginning of the film as we watch the playful Chuyia riding with her ailing, elderly husband to the doctor, it is clear that she does not understand the gravity of her situation. If he dies, she will become an outcast. What could be done to help such young women now living as widowed outcasts in India?
- The caste system of Hinduism encourages people to not help the poor since poverty is believed to be the punishment of sins committed in a former life. How do you think this belief has impacted life in India?
- When the oldest widow dies, it is the hope of the other widows that she will be reincarnated as a man. Why?
- Kalyani’s attempt to be a lotus flower growing out of the filth around her was charming. Though she made it impossible for Narayan to marry her, do you believe they would have had a happy marriage? Why or why not?