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‘Water’ tells lyrical, tragic story of India in a beautiful way

Tidings Reviewer

— — — — IF YOU GO

— — — Starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham — and Sarla

— Directed by Deepa Mehta

— Not rated

— —

“Water” is lyrical. Written and directed by Deepa Mehta, it is immediately involving, a film of social criticism that never becomes pedantic. Set in India, in 1938, during the twilight of British colonial rule, it is filled with images of startling beauty and haunting tragedy.

According to the ancient Hindu holy texts, a widow has three choices should her husband die: she can join him on his funeral pyre; marry his younger brother; or live the rest of her life in a place apart, chaste, forbidden to ever marry again. For young brides it can mean, as it does in “Water,” that an 8-year-old girl can be joined in marriage to an older man and should he die then she is destined, according to custom and scripture, to live the rest of her days away from family, cloistered in an ashram, among other widows who face the same fate.

The widows of India, deemed an underclass, outcasts, beg on the streets, remain uneducated, and are so marginalized that they all but disappear.

In the opening set up we see a small girl, Chuyia, riding on a cart with the body of her dead husband. She, of course, has no idea what has happened, nor what it will mean for the rest of her years.

Understanding only that this elderly man, whom she never really knew, is gone, she asks to go home. She calls for her mother. She pleads with her father. Instead, according to religious custom, he takes his small daughter to an ashram and leaves her with the women, knowing that he will never see her again.

The faces of the widows of the ashram bear the wretched testimony of their loss — not of their husbands, but of the years — lives never lived, only passed. The sadness, the longing is writ large, most especially in the eyes of the devout Shakuntua (Seema Biswas) who believes in the Hindu teachings, but is also profoundly aware of the injustice perpetrated against the women who are widows.

Watching Chuyia reminds her of how a life, so filled with vitality and rebellion and optimism, can be truncated by religion in its most extreme. She realizes that she, and the women trapped in the cloister of the ashram, are damaged by tenets that seem cruelly arbitrary and little more.

While a love story is at the center of the film, between Kaylani, a young, beautiful widow, and Narayan, the son of a wealthy Brahmin, “Water” is, in essence, about a shift in perspective. Shakuntual begins to wonder if the physical and emotional incarceration of widows isn’t a stunning miscarriage of justice.

The widows of the ashram also become a powerful metaphor. In 1938, Ghandi had appeared on India’s horizon and its people were beginning to find their own voice, daring to imagine life free of colonial rule. British domination, so accepted, so much a part of Indian life, was at the tipping point.

The great irony of this film is that while India secured its independence, freed itself from the countless assumptions that were its shackles, the widows of India, some 30 million, continue to be incarcerated by the fanaticism of religious dogma. “Water” makes this provocative point in a most melancholy way.


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