A little girl is awakened by her father, who asks if she remembers getting married. She says no. Anyway, her father says, her husband is dead. She’s a widow now. “For how long?” she asks, but she doesn’t get an answer. Her father can’t bear to tell her that she’ll be a widow for the rest of her life.
This is India in 1938, and ancient Hindu texts command that widows remain chaste and unmarried, lest they be reincarnated as jackals (!). The girl, named Chuyia (played by a little cherub named Sarala), is the central figure in “Water,” the third part in Deepa Mehta’s political trilogy that began with “Fire” and “Earth.”
Mehta, an Indian woman who moved to Canada in her 20s, creates a powerfully real (but cinematically lovely) view of 1930s India, at a time when Gandhi was coming to prominence and urging Indians to get out from under British rule. Indian women, however, particularly widows, remained oppressed.
Chuyia is sent to a small compound where a dozen or so widows live, most of them a great deal older than her. (How she came to be married is never explained, but we are given to understand that child brides were common, and that there’s every chance she never even met the man.) At 8, Chuyia is curious, stubborn and cheerful like a child should be, and she quickly befriends Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow who shares her enthusiasm for life. Kalyani is in a different class altogether, though, being pimped out by the head woman Madhumati (the single-named Manorama) in order to bring much-needed income to the house. That widows are supposed to remain unmarried yet can work as prostitutes is just one of many contradictions in the archaic rules the women live by.
While in the city one day, Kalyani and Chuyia meet Narayan (John Abraham), a handsome law student. He’s an idealist and a nationalist, eager to follow Gandhi’s teachings. He and Kalyani are smitten with each other. Can she defy her keepers and remarry?
Though the details of the story are foreign to Western thinking, the general themes of forbidden love and conflicted religious feelings are familiar to almost everyone. Mehta includes another widow character, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), who experiences some of the same conflicts as Kalyani. While many of the widows are complacent and resigned, Shakuntala questions whether this is what the Scriptures truly teach. She turns to a local priest for guidance, devoutly obeying the rules in the meantime just in case.
Mehta’s regular cinematographer Giles Nuttgens beautifully photographs the Sri Lankan scenery (Sri Lanka because threats and pressures in India made it impossible to shoot the film there). The nights are tinted in blue, the Ganges river looks deep and strong, and the countrysides are alive with color. The film’s visuals hold almost as much power as its story does.
B (1 hr., 56 min.; Hindi with subtitles; )