BY PATRICIA DRAZNIN
“A widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained,and chaste. A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has diedgoes to heaven. A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in thewomb of a jackal.”
–The Laws of Manu, from Dharamshastras, the sacred Hindu texts
In 1938 India, we meet Chuyia, the bright and spirited childof a Hindu family. Chuyia’s father tells her that her husband is dead.Chuyia does not even remember getting married. Her parents break our heartsas they shave Chuyia’s thick wavy hair down to her scalp. And deliverher to a house of widows dressed in humble white saris, the color of mourning.It is here that Chuyia will live out her days in hiding to atone for whateverpast sins resulted in the death of her husband, a man she hardly knew.
Although remarriage was legalized in the 19th century, a widow’s lifeis still doomed with the stigma of an impure and useless soul whose very shadowis a curse. This social issue is so volatile that during film production ofWater, radical fundamentalists burned down the sets, forcing the director toshut down production for four years until secretly relocating to Sri Lanka.
Water is the final installation of a social trilogy by Deepa Mehta, screenwriter/director extraordinaire. Like its sister films Fire (1996) and Earth (1998),Water’s mysterious title refers to one of the five vital elements,the underlying flow of life that wears many faces. Water is a means ofpurification and cleansing; water is a medium that can separate or unite;water is a force that sustains life and takes it away. Water is a primalcharacter whose presence throughout the film is a metaphor for constancy.
This sad and alarming drama delivers unexpected beauty. The photographyof Giles Nuttgens and Dilip Mehta creates visual magic. And its rich,well-crafted characters weave a masterful story that draws us deeply intothe lives of some unforgettable women. Such as Madhumati, who rules thewidow roost as a business; the gorgeous Kalyani whose privileged long hairmakes her Madhumati’s commodity; the sharp and caring Shakuntala,whose longstanding faith begs to be toppled. And the inquisitive Chuyia,whose questions like ‘wheredo all the men widows live?’ stir up the widows’ passive acceptanceof their terrible fate. And in the background of this unfathomabletale is Mahatma Gandhi, urging colonial India to claim its independenceand embrace truth.
Water is an intricate commentary on religion, politics, social mores,freedom, faith, obedience, and hypocrisy. It is also a love story. Further,it’s a model for how to orchestrate a sterling feature film. Andfinally, Water is a tribute to a bold director who risked her life to bringthis haunting story to the screen that will follow you out of the theater.