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May 16, 2006

"Water" is fluidly eloquent

by Payal Patnaik, Online Editor-in-Chief
With a simple thread of a tale as stark as the widow's garb, Deepa Mehta installs a powerful third film "Water" to her controversial, feminist trilogy. Her previous two movies, "Fire" and "Earth," stormy and barraged with numerous denouncements and plentiful acclaim, have captured and questioned the traditional ways of Indian society and its treatment of women.

Set in India in the 1930s, the movie opens with a cute, chubby girl of seven years sitting on the edge of a wagon and dangling her feet off the back. Chuiya (Sarala) finds out that her husband has died and she is left at the doorstep of an ashram, her locks shaved off and her parents gone. She innocently believes that her mother will pick her up and none of the other widows have the heart to tell her otherwise. As a naive child, Chuiya walks around saying that she is a widow without knowing the full meaning that society holds for those who are left by their dead husbands. She does not understand the grief of being an outcast, she does not understand the necessity of begging and she does not understand the reason why women are confined and cast out by society once their spouses die. "Where do the man-widows go?" she asks, with faultless reason. No one has a response, and all the widows are horrified by such a question.

But the real answer, Mehta shows, is that the man-widows do not go anywhere. According to Hindu scriptures, when a woman's husband dies, half of her soul dies along with him. Therefore, a woman has the choice to kill herself on her husband's funeral pyre, marry her husband's younger brother or live as an outcast by society in an ashram.

As Chuiya wanders the ashram, she meets different widows with different pasts, all who long for something more outside the walls of its structure. "Water," a masterpiece, spins a thread of tales into a beautiful mosaic of accounts not only of Chuiya, but of the delicate and young Kalyani (Lisa Ray), as well as of the other widows in the ashram.

Since she is a beautiful girl, Kalyani is not required to shave her head but is instead sent over the river as a prostitute in order to provide money for the ashram. Ray gracefully portrays a woman severely victimized by the system. She falls in love with Narayan (John Abraham), a passionate follower of Gandhi who cannot understand why he is not allowed to marry a widow. Kalyani was the product of a child marriage and never saw her husband before he died. The connection between Narayan and Kalyani, illustrated as Narayan sneaks a note into the ashram and the illiterate Kalyani eagerly asks another widow to read it to her, is powerfully captivating and simple in its authentically true emotion.

Narayan serves as the voice of Mehta, as he declares economics to be the cause of the discrimination against widows. According to him, widows are an economic strain on in-laws, so therefore, by restricting them, there is one less mouth to feed and four fewer saris to buy. Constantly playing the flute and opinionated in his passionately nationalistic and liberal views of India, Narayan serves as a symbolic savior engraved as an image of the Hindu's Lord Krishna, the flute-playing incarnation of the Savior, Vishnu.

Ironically, as the heat of Gandhi envelopes the nation, the ashram provides peace and quiet within its confines. Along the banks of the Ganges where the widows dwell, life still continues. Yet, as Gandhi preaches about love and tolerance of the oppressed and the nation lurches forward in reform, Hindus still cling to their traditions and beliefs that condemn widows to their worthless social roles. To them, widows are tainted when Kalyani brushes past a married woman, the woman screams that she needs to take another bath.

Mehta has given her audience a simple and artistic film that artfully questions the traditions of religion and society that have oppressed women. She uses few words and subtly implies the rest to create a captivating, powerful and heart-wrenching film; Mehta paints the innocent as victimized by society and condemned to a tortuous, meaningless remainder of life. By portraying the movie in Chuiya's eyes, the message could not be any clearer: society has condemned women to a secondary social role, making them helpless against the restraints and killing their childhoods and innocence. During its production over five years, "Water" has been vehemently protested by Hindu fundamentalists. The issues Mehta raises are still relevant today, and she questions Hindu society's discrimination and outdated traditions that still exist with a simple tale of truth and beauty.

"Water" (114 minutes) is unrated but contains some mature thematic material involving sexual situations and drug use. It is in Hindi with English subtitles and is now showing at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema, AMC Loews Dupont and Cinema Arts Centre Cinema Arts Theatre.



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