The era is 1938 India. Chuyia is an eight year old girl who has just been told she is a widow.
“Do you remember the day you got married?” asks her father. “No,” she replies. Her husband was a grown man and she didn’t know him.
Now that her husband is dead, Chuyia has few alternatives: according to custom, she could throw herself onto her husband’s burning body, marry her husband’s younger brother, or live among other widows in an ashram in exile for the rest of her days. Chuyia’s choices have narrowed even more since as a widow, she is forever a marked woman. Widows are considered bad luck, and unwanted. Keeping her at home would mark the family. Her father sees no choice but to ship Chuyia to the ashram.
The ashram is situated in town, close to the river. The water itself is the lifeblood of the town where people go to bathe, and cleanse themselves spiritually. Weddings and funerals happen here. The minute she arrives, Chuyia is lead to the water to be cleansed of her identity; her long hair is shaved off and she is given the standard issue uniform of a white sari. The ashram itself is a dilapidated building devoid of beds or food. Widows sleep on the floor and beg for money. Chuyia is confused and upset by this environment and wants to go home, not realizing this is her new normal. And there is no comfort coming from the ashram’s leader, Madhumati, a cruel rotund woman, who has afforded herself the luxury of a bed and gets fed most of the food the ashram attains. Chuyia is the youngest widow among the group and has nothing in common with most of the other widows.
Soon after her arrival though, she meets and develops a close bond with Kalyani, a young widow in her late teens who was herself a child bride. Kalyani is striking, and unlike the other widows, she curiously has been permitted to keep her hair long. The reason for this though, is a dark secret that would not be understood by Chuyia: Kalyani is being forced into prostitution by Madhumati to make money for the ashram. She is the youngest woman of age and the most attractive; she is compliant and obedient, and although she hates this, she has little choice.
Despite her predicament, Kalyani holds her dreams and aspirations for her life close to her heart, with a realization she will never be able to fulfill them. That is, until one day she and Chuyia run into Narayan, a charming upper-class young man who falls for Kalyani instantly. Narayan has just graduated University and is getting pressure from his mother to marry the girl she chose for him, which he abhors. Having a progressive view of the world, and having become of a follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s tenets, he feels people have a choice who they should marry. His heart is set on Kalyani – and her’s on him. He gets flack from friends and family about marrying a marked woman, but he doesn’t care what they think; Kalyani is perfect.
This is good timing for Narayan and Kalyani: a new law has been enacted that allows widows to remarry even though society hasn’t adapted to the idea. Like one character in the film says, “We ignore the laws that don’t benefit us.” This becomes a harbinger of bad fortune as young Chuyia blurts out to Madhumati the news of the impending marriage. Madhumati is none too pleased with Kalyani; the ashram’s only true source of income is getting married? Madhumati can’t have that! What happens next to the young widows is unexpected and shocking.
Water is the third film by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta that follows her Elements trilogy series (Fire (1996), and Earth (1998) preceded it). When I was in Grade 13 (OAC) Sociology, I remember studying India’s caste system and how widows had very little affluence afforded to them. It was also at this time I learned what was a funeral pyre (thanks to Light My Fire by the Doors for the first exposure to the term). Shockingly, I also learned that these traditions still exist today, and how fervently some will protect this tradition. This is no more evident than how Water was writhe with production problems – there are people who still believe in the original traditions of widowhood in India as Mehta’s movie sets were continuously sabotaged, plagued with public protests, and insofar as to have her life under threat. Production for the film was eventually moved to secret locations in Sri Lanka.
With that said, can Mehta make a movie, or what? She is fast becoming a favourite of mine. I loved Water – all of it. The beautiful first shot of waterlilies in the water, the sublime music, the actors that are foreign to me yet gave such rich performances…The movie takes a steady unapologetic shot at life in India at a time of suppression and never shies away, but is also gentle in its execution. In an early scene, for example, Chuyia is at the edge of a wagon, and the camera lingers on her little feet, where she is wearing anklets of tiny bells; so simple, yet memorable.
If you are in Canada and happen to sub to a movie package on satellite or cable, I can tell you Hollywood Suite and the Movie Network have been airing Fire and Water periodically over the last year. SET YOUR PVR!! If you loved Fire, Water is even better. I highly recommend it!
Now to find Earth…
Dir: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, Jon Abraham and Sarala Kariyawasam
Don’t forget to catch my Fire (1996) review!