There are still places in the world in the 21st century where to suggest that women are individuals, human beings in their own right who are entitled to independence and self-determination, is to court death. India is, apparently, one such place: in 2000, fundamentalist Hindus threatened to kill Indian-Canadian writer/director Deepa Mehta over her film Water, actually rioted because she was daring to expose a cruel injustice that has gone on for far too long in the name of tradition.
What Mehta had the temerity to do was to suggest — via Water, third in her trilogy of “elemental” films, which also includes Fire and Earth — that the Hindu custom of shunning and sequestering widows may not be a moral or honorable one. The practice isn’t, perhaps, quite as awful as actually throwing widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, but that might be a less cruel fate, as Water illustrates so beautifully, and so harshly.
The year is 1938, and Mehta introduces us to the world of these discarded women via Chuyia, an eight-year-old girl whose life, according to the rules of this culture, is over now that the husband she doesn’t even know, the husband she’d been given to even though she isn’t old enough to form anything like consent, has died. In the strange calculus of this faith, Chuyia must somehow atone for somehow having failed a stranger-husband, so her head is shaved and she is dressed in simple white robes and she is sent to live in a house with other “penitent” widows, who, because they are considered so unworthy, can survive only by begging.
As is so often the way with cruel injustices, it is this particularly horrific aspect to the shunning custom — the putting away of a young child — that might help lead to its end, at least for a few of the women here. Chuyia provides the spark that reignites the women in her new home with a passion for living, which had long since fled most of them. In one lovely scene Chuyia sneaks in a sweet for one of the quite elderly widows, who is practically a child herself. The only memories Auntie (Vidula Javalgekar) seems to have of her own wedding and married life are of the delicious treats at the marriage ceremony, and the austere life the widows lead — sweets are right off the menu, that’s for sure — has led her to become a little obsessed with cakes called ladoos: all she wants is a ladoo. And so Chuyia, who cares nothing for the rules, brings her one, and peeks to watch the old lady treasuring this taste of a life that has long since escaped her.
Though set in colonial India, Mehta had to move her production to Sri Lanka when she was driven out of that country with the project, and Chuyia is played by a Sri Lankan girl named Sarala, who speaks neither English nor Hindi and learned all her lines phonetically. Her abundant child’s spirit and enthusiasm is universal, though, and infectious… which consequently only makes Water all the more devastating. Every moment that is exquisite here, like the ladoo scene, is tinged with a profound melancholy on the part of the adult characters, who know full well what they have lost, and that in turn inspires a boiling rage in the viewer to know that so many lives were wasted in this way. For every beautiful moment — like how the young and gorgeous widow Kalyani (Bollywood superstar Lisa Ray) hides a puppy in her hut for the liveliness that it provides her — there is an ugly counterpart, like how the joy another pet brings another widow becomes a weapon against her.
You can only call Water a feminist horror film, like the recent The Magdalene Sisters, in which the layers of ironies — guess what one job-of-last-resort for women is open to these widows? — only serve to make more plainly horrific the routine subjugation of a wide swath of humanity. In which the hints of hope — as come here in the form of a university student and Gandhi supporter, Narayana (John Abraham, another huge Bollywood name), who befriends Chuyia and Kalyani and is appalled by the traditions they are forced to live under — become only cruel reminders that their untenable situation may have no escape. At the death of one of the widows, another says, “God willing, she’ll be reborn as a man,” and you want to scream at the truth of it.