Few filmmakers will ever undergo what Deepa Mehta went through to see Water, the last film of her elemental trilogy, to fruition. After raising the ire of Hindu fundamentalists with her films Fire (about two sisters-in-law in loveless marriages who embark on a lesbian relationship) and Earth (about the uneasy relationship between India and Pakistan), Mehta initially set out to film Water in India. The Uttar Pradesh government initially provided security for the film, but following violent protests and repeated death threats against Mehta, the government pulled its support, on the grounds it could not ensure Mehta's safety. Years later, Mehta made a fresh start under a veil of secrecy in neighboring Sri Lanka, filming under the fake title of Full Moon, with a new cast and with no publicity, in order to minimize conflict. When a director goes through all that to make a film, one hopes the end result will be startlingly good, and Water, fortunately, does not disappoint.
The film, which examines the way widows are treated in India, is set in 1939, just as Mahatma Gandhi was rising in popularity with his messages of peace and social justice. The central character of the film is 8-year-old Chuyia, played with remarkable charm by Sarala, a previously unknown actress from an Indian village, who spoke neither Hindi nor English, and had to learn all her lines phonetically (she communicated with Mehta through an interpreter and hand signals). Chuyia was married off by her family to an older man who, unfortunately, dies, leaving Chuyia a widow at an age when she cannot even comprehend what marriage is. As is traditional in India, after her husband dies Chuyia is stripped of her colorful clothing and jewelry; her head is shaved, and she is dressed in the white sari of the widow, then unceremoniously abandoned by her father at an ashram for widows -- a pitiful, dank place where a group of widows has banded together to survive in barest poverty.
In India, the sight of widows, heads shaved, dressed in white, the color of death, amid a culture where brilliant colors are valued by women, was not uncommon in 1939; neither is it uncommon today. Mehta was inspired to make Water after encountering a pathetic older widow in India. In Hinduism, as the film explains this cultural phenomenon, a woman who marries becomes a part of her husband; thus, when he precedes her in death, she is considered partly dead as well -- widowhood is basically akin to a fate as a walking dead body. Widows are considered bad luck, and are not allowed at fortuitous occasions like birth and weddings (in one scene in the film, a widow getting water at the holy river is admonished not to let her shadow fall on a bride).
Chuyia, dumped at the ashram with no hope of ever returning to her home and with little understanding of why, is nevertheless full of a spunk and spirit that befuddles the older widows, many of whom were, themselves, widowed at a young age. At the ashram, young Chuyia encounters Madhmati, the obese head widow who rules the ashram with a flabby iron fist, as well as the two women who will be pivotal to her story: Shankutala (Seema Biswas), a bitterly-resigned, middle-aged widow who seeks faith to overcome her desire to have hope for a future, and Kalyani (Indian-Canadian actress Lisa Ray), who is allowed to keep her beautiful, long hair so that she can work as a prostitute to the rich gentry and support the ashram -- a fate that, ironically, leaves her an outcast to the other widows whom she supports. Chuyia's arrival brings light and laughter into Kulyani's life. She also brings together Kalyani and Narayan (Bollywood star John Abraham) an idealistic, well-educated member of the Brahmin caste who is an ardent follower of Gandhi. Perhaps in part because of his admiration for Gandhi and his rallying cry for social justice, Narayan finds himself irresistibly drawn to Kalyani, who, as a widow, is forbidden to him. Narayan seeks to lead the charge of sweeping social reform, carrying Kalyani with him as his bride. Kalyani, for her part, having found love and romance for the first time in her life, begins to question the faith she has clung to in accepting her fate as a widow.
It's difficult, as a Westerner, to watch a film like Water without feeling a sense of disbelief that such things happen, even if you know perfectly well, intellectually, that they can and do. The idea of marrying off a seven-year-old child would be abhorrent to most Westerners; it's equally hard to stomach that families would abandon mothers and grandmothers to poverty and obscurity, simply because a husband died. Equally disturbing is Mehta's exploration of the contradictions inherent in the ostracizaton of widows in India; what it all comes down to, really, is money -- one less mouth to feed, less saris to buy, more space for everyone else -- and the use of religion to justify societal convenience. Mehta doesn't pull punches with the caste system, either: the rich gentry, aside from the noble and gentle Narayan, are depicted as wealthy hypocrites who also use religion to justify using and mistreating the lower castes and the widows of the ashram.
Mehta takes her culture to task, but she does it so engagingly, through such a poignant and moving story, you almost forget you're watching a highly controversial and political film; Michael Moore's got nothing on Mehta when it comes to skewering social and political issues, and she literally puts her life on the line in order to do so. Acclaimed cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who brought Fire and Earth to vivid life, was also on hand to guide the look of Water: moody blue and green tones, the contrasts of light and shadow, and the stillness of the ashram against the bustle of the city, all help set the tone for this beautifully rendered film. The perfectly understated score by A.R. Rahman weaves all the other elements together into a masterpiece of a film.
I'm not sure which elements of this final piece of Mehta's trilogy most raised the ire of the Hindu fundamentalists: Setting the film around Gandhi and his platform of peace and social justice? Depicting the truth about the way widows are sometimes treated in India? The challenge to the caste system inherent in the storyline? Probably a little of all those things. In spite of the fundamentalist threats -- really, because of them -- Water should be seen across India. Whether it will remains to be seen, but Mehta for her part, has said in interviews that she is satisfied with the final part of her trilogy and that it will always be her favorite, because it was so difficult to see through. Mehta is a director of stunning vision and remarkable courage. Here's hoping she keeps using her voice and vision to create more fantastic films like Water.