Water is a 2005 Canadian film directed and written by Deepa Mehta. The film is in Hindi and deals with the lives of Hindu widows in British colonial India of 1938. It is the third part of Mehta’s Elements trilogy – Fire (1996) and Earth (1998). In 2006, it was translated into a novel entitled Water: A Novel by Bapsi Sidhwa. The movie stars Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham, and Sarala Kariyawasam.
Plot. Water is set in 1938 in British India Empire. During this period, Hindus follow their tradition of marriage of young girls to older men. In the event that the man dies, his young widow would have to spend the rest of her life in an ashram, an institution for widows where they make amends for the sins from their previous life which have supposedly caused their husband’s death.
The movie begins with Chuyia, an eight-year old girl, who had lost her husband and then instantly left in the ashram for Hindu widows. The ashram is a dilapidated two-story building housing fourteen women. The place is ruled by Madhumati, a fat lady in her 70s who forces the widows to ask for alms to support the ashram. There, Chuyia befriends some widows, including the enigmatic Shakuntala and the beautiful Kalyani. Shakuntala is one of the few widows who can read, but is quiet and reserved, mainly because of her anger of being a widow. She is a devout Hindu who often seeks the counsel of an old priest. Meanwhile, Kalyani is valued in the ashram for her beauty and is the only one whose hair is not short. With Chuyia’s arrival, she now becomes the second youngest widow in the place. Unknown to the other widows, Kalyani is being traded by Madhumati as a prostitute. During some nights, she is secretly taken across the water to the customers by Madhumati and Gulabi, another widow. This has been going on since Kalyani’s childhood and has since become a good source of income for the ashram.
The complication happens when Chuyia meets a young and handsome follower of Mahatma Gandhi and of Gandhism named Narayan. Consequently, Chuyia introduces Narayan to Kalyani and both feel an instant attraction. In the beginning, both have hesitations as Kalyani fears the regulations regarding widows and as Narayan’s upper-class family is against his beliefs and his choices. However, during a romantic ride through the British section of the city, Narayan declares his love and the two decide on getting married. Thrilled, Kalyani shares the secrets of her wedding plans to Chuyia.
A secret cannot be kept hidden forever and soon Madhumati learns about it. Enraged, she rushes to Kalyani’s room and cuts off her long black hair and locks her. Over the protests of the other widows and as a sign of rebellion, Shakuntala unlocks the door to Kalyani’s room. Kalyani walks out of the ashram and bathes in the ghats. She then proceeds to a small deserted temple where Narayan is waiting for her, and despite her worn appearance, Narayan asks her in a whisper if she will marry him. Narayan takes Kalyani across the water to his parents’ house but upon recognizing the gates of the house, Kalyani asks him for his father’s full name. After his reply, Kalyani demands that they turn around and she be taken back. She gives no reason for her change of mind and suddenly departs. Later, Narayan learns from his father that he has used Kalyani as a prostitute, as Brahmins or men in upper class can take any woman they want and such women would be blessed. Disgusted with this belief, Narayan leaves his father’s house and decides to join Mahatma Gandhi. He goes to the ashram, only to find out that Kalyani has drowned herself in grief.
Meanwhile, that previous night has also been eventful for Chuyia. With Kalyani gone, Madhumati sends Chuyia away with Gulabi to a client waiting for her across the water. Shakuntala learns about it and runs out to protect Chuyia. She rushes to the shore, just in time for Chuyia’s return. The child is deeply traumatized and barely able to respond. After spending the night with Chuyia reflecting on the shore, she walks with her through town and delivers the child at the train station where a train that carries Gandhi’s followers is ready to leave. Instinctively, she follows the crowd to receive Gandhi’s blessing and then ask people to take Chuyia with them and put her under Gandhi’s care. She spots Narayan and gives Chuyia to her. The train then departs to a much better world and future.
Commentary. Water deals with a sensitive cultural and political issue. It portrays the lives of women during the time when India is under caste system and widows are suffering from too much discrimination. Here, widows are condemned for the death of their husband and are sent into a lifetime of penitence and loneliness. They are not allowed to talk, touch or interact with anyone as it makes that person sin to do so. If they remarry, they would be reborn seven times as a jackal. With these details, Water is informative and historical. Yet, the movie is not preachy and judgmental at all for it simply gives us a picture of what widow’s life is like during that time. It gives us a harrowing and deeply moving picture, evoking in us a feeling of hatred and disgust in such a cruel society. It can make anyone stand up for justice, equality and freedom. The movie is deeply harrowing and its message crosses several culture and generation. There may not be such practices in today’s society but discrimination still exists in some other forms and means. There are gender discriminations, bias capitalism, societal classes, and many others.
Water is a silent killer. It is a lengthy movie and slow-paced. However, it has a clear storyline that can excite viewers. No matter how sleepy some scenes are, you can still find yourself eagerly anticipating the next events. In the end, anyone would be moved to tears as the realization that the road to change requires painful sacrifices dawns on him or her.
The movie is a real classic and its excellence must be credited to both the production team and the actors. Despite its subject matter, Water is not an Indian film but a Canadian production. Director Mehta has given us an insightful look at India’s life before. Some factual details must have been left out, but the twists and turns were rightfully infused. The lead actors deserve a standing ovation for their believable and heartfelt performances, too.
Water has many wonderful passages. This is one of the best:
“Learn to live like a lotus, untouched by the filthy water it grows in.”
Reception. Water was nominated for several awards including Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007, and won some including the 2006 Bangkok International Film Festival for Best Film. It premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival where it was honored with the opening Gala.