Although I saw this film more than two months ago at the Film Festival, its haunting evocation of colonial India has stayed with me. A group of widows live together in poverty in a dilapidated stone building. Their ages range from the eight year old newcomer Chuyia, to the impossibly ancient Bhagavati, who seems older than the crumbling building itself. All are shaven-headed except the beautiful Kalyani who is farmed out as a prostitute to supplement the widows’ meagre income. This practice is an old custom, whereby if a woman is widowed, she can either be burnt with her husband, stay with his family, which is unlikely, or live in base conditions with other widows. All the film’s most poignant moments play out on the banks of the Ganges or in the rain. We learn about life and custom in 1938 at the social hub which is the river, where the locals meet, wash, gossip, hold prayer sessions and plot revolution. Kalyani meets Narayan, a young, progressive-minded student, while wringing out her washing from her balcony, drenching him. They later fall in love in the midst of a sultry, orange-hued Indian night, the river moving darkly in the background. Water, as the title suggests, is a central motif.
The film also makes a persuasive argument about the forces maintaining this type of oppression, which is essentially economic. Conservative forces are at work, and one of the most interesting elements is the intersection and entanglement of gender oppression and colonial oppression. The treatment of widows is clearly a Hindu practice, rather than one of the many introduced when the British colonizers arrived, yet its continuation is strongly associated with the British. Narayan, a Ghandi supporter, is the only male in the film to abhor the practice. Chuyia’s indignation at being sent away by her father makes a powerful point that if we cannot justify our ways of life to children, can we justify them at all? Widows and revolution are swept together in the name of a progress not unlike that of the river.
Water is worth seeing for the magnificent, dusky, expansive colour schemes alone, Chuyia’s havoc-wreaking antics, and the sobering knowledge that this type of practice continues today.
DIRECTED BY DEEPA MEHTA