Water

| May 4, 2006

For all you women out there, imagine becoming a widow at the age of eight. Difficult to do? When I think back to that age, I was still watching cartoons and playing with Barbies. I couldn’t possibly conceive of what marriage would be like, let alone how my life would change after losing a husband when still just a child.
Coming after her two previous films, Fire and Earth, Deepa Mehta’s Water is the third in a trilogy, here exploring the victimizing traditions of society. Set in 1930s India, the film examines the fate of several women who are forced to live out the rest of their days in an ashram for widows, permanently cast away from the rest of the world. We are first introduced to Chuyia (Sarala), a young girl who is left at the ashram after her husband passes away. Her head is shaven, she is uniformed in white robes, and thus begins the rest of her life as a grieving widow. Yet Chuyia is able to find some solace in the friendship of Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful, vibrant woman who makes her way by prostituting herself to the wealthy men that live across the Ganges River. Also a widow, Kalyani refuses to let her spirit be crushed by the laws of an unjust tradition. Yet when Kalyani meets Narayan (John Abraham), an idealistic law student, that same tradition prevents her from a second chance at happiness, as Indian law forbids widows to remarry.
I’m always fascinated by films that explore the customs of other societies. It’s so easy to just balk and declare ignorance on the part of other peoples and cultures. Who among us hasn’t said at one time or another, “Well, we would never do that over here.” We instantly claim the higher moral ground and separate ourselves from the subject matter. Yet although Water is an exploration of Indian tradition, those of us on the opposite side of the world can still relate to this outwardly foreign state of mind. In essence, Water is about how cultural tradition allows the imprisonment of those who live on the outskirts of society, ignored by those who are either too busy or too timid to stand up on their behalf. But what about our own elderly who are shut away in poorly managed nursing facilities? Or the homeless that live where they can, on the streets or in the parks of our cities? Or the foster children that are shuffled from home to home, lost in the cracks of a system that allows abuse and neglect? Hardly any of us can claim ignorance of these problems, but if it doesn’t affect us directly, then it is all too easy to turn the other way and forget about these suffering people.
Water can at times lose the audience with its overwhelming sense of grief and life lost, but its message is nevertheless one of promise. The performances of Sarala and Ray are particularly uplifting. How can you possibly deny the energy force of these women, despite the circumstances into which they are driven? And the beauty of Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography, infused with an awe and reverence for the natural landscape, stirs the hope of the viewer, giving one the idea that perhaps not all is lost for these unfortunate individuals.
Despite the seemingly strange subject matter, a story set long ago about a culture of which most Westerners know nothing, Water is a film from which we can all learn. A film about injustice and the perseverance of the human heart, Water goes beyond the plight of an eight year-old Indian girl and gives us all a glimpse of how to better understand and help those within our society that perhaps cannot speak up for themselves.

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