December 28, 2006 -- “Water” is a film illustrating the severe restrictions that some widows face in India. Widows are expected to honor ancient religious beliefs that force them into a lifetime of poverty, sacrifice, hardship, begging and sometimes prostitution. Although the film is set in the 1930s, things have not improved much for some widows since then. So controversial was this film that riots, death threats and demonstrations shut down the production in India. It ended up being made in Sri Lanka. It is a film that needed to be made and the filmmakers should be commended for their courage and determination.
The film tells the story of Chuyia (played by Sarala), an eight-year-old girl whose husband dies, making her a widow, even though she cannot ever remember getting married. It was not uncommon in those days for young girls to be married by their families for financial reasons. When Chuyia's father tells her she is a widow, she asks him, “for how long.” She is forcibly removed from her home, her hair is shaved off and she is sent to live in a distant, small, run-down ashram headed by a powerful widow, Madhumati (played by Manorama) who daily curses her departed husband for dying. In order to raise money for the ashram, the widows beg for money on the streets, and some are sent out at night as prostitutes. One such woman is the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) who is allowed to keep her hair long so she can raise money for the ashram.
Feisty and playful, Chuyia lights up the ashram. She still thinks she will be allowed to go home to her family and she maintains a positive outlook. She is also kind to the other widows and obtains candy for one feeble widow. Following some traditional Hindu beliefs, widows are considered half-dead and are required to live celibate lives, eating only one meal a day. They are supposed to stay in this meager existence until they die. The story takes place during the rise to power of the great leader Mahatma Gandhi. His words inspire a young brahman, Narayan (John Abraham) to think outside the boundaries of tradition. He falls in love with Kalyani and offers to marry her, despite the fact she is a widow.
Hindu traditions are explored in the movie through the sayings of a wise old priest Sadananda (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) who befriends some of the widows. Although the film has more than its share of suffering and tragedy, it does end on a note of hope, tied to Mahatma Gandhi and the impending independence of India from British rule. The uproar over this film in India among some Hindus is similar to the uproar in the United States over attempts by homosexuals to attain equal rights to heterosexuals. It is also a bit similar to the uproar over abortion rights. In both cases, it is an extension of the idea of viewing women as chattel, a lesser extension of their husbands.
This film is the third in a trilogy of films, preceded by Deepa Mehta's films “Earth” and “Fire.” These films work as social and political commentary. I have not seen the first two films, but based on the strength of “Water” they must be well worth watching. This film rates an A. It, along with “Tsotsi,” are the best foreign films I've seen this year.
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