Commentary on Deepa Mehta’s Water

MM,

Unlike most people who have already seen Deepa Mehta’s Water, I had different motivations for watching it. My primary reason was one of cultural and historical interest as well as exposing myself to a different spiritual background.

Note: This commentary is primarily for those who have seen the movie. If you have not seen the movie, please be aware that a considerable amount of the plot is given as well as dialogue and some scene descriptions.

Water has been grabbed onto by feminists as a movie with a veiled cry for “help” from Hindu widows; however, the messages to be found in the movie are much more philosophical and spiritual. The movie shows the complexity of a society in the beginning of political and social changes. The setting is India in 1938 around the time when Ghandi held much influence. Changes are brought about by the influx of Western societal ideals as provided to East Indians by the British Empire. Western ideals, however, have both a positive and negative impact on the Hindu beliefs already firmly held in India.

Along with a complex social and political background, the story centers around three widows – all of different ages. One is a child, Chuyia, who is roughly eight or nine years old. The second is a young woman, Kalyani, who is around her tweens, probably not meant to be older than twenty-five. The third is an older women, Shakuntala, probably meant to be in her fourties or early fifties.

The movie starts off with Chuyia becoming a widow after her husband dies from an illness. Her father comes into the scene and wakes her. He asks her if she remembers being married. Chuyia replies “No.” Her father tells her that her husband has died and that she is now a widow. Chuyia asks her father how long she must be a widow. Next, Chuyia is brought to an ashram where other widows live together. Before being allowed in, she runs inside, looks around quickly and runs back out to her father. She begs him to take her back home. Her father looks at her sadly and says that this is her home now. Chuyia then asks where her mother is if this is her home. Someone comes to the doorway and drags Chuyia inside while she screams that she wants to leave. Her father resignedly watches his young daughter newly widowed being dragged away by a stranger.

Here is where we meet the other two main characters. First, we meet Shakuntala, who becomes a mother figure to Chuyia. Next, we meet Kalyani, a beautiful young woman, who takes to Chuyia like an older sister.

At first, Chuyia believes that her mother will come and take her home. As time passes and she settles into a daily routine at the ashram, Chuyia realizes that her mother isn’t coming for her and that this is her home now. Even that thought though does not destroy Chuyia’s spirit. She’s a feisty child and strong-willed.

Shakuntala is just as strong-willed, but more disciplined. She spends time with a Priest, learns from him, and develops a spiritual strength, resilience, and determination. He tells her to never lose faith. She never does. It is Shakuntala who helps Chuyia in the end. The movie ends with a seeming hint that maybe Shakuntala’s help does not just end with Chuyia. Shakuntala seems to realize now that she has power to do something to change the fates of those around her. There is hope where there is faith because through faith there is strength, resilience, and determination.

It is Kalyani’s story though that the audience seems to remember most, although it is Chuyia who is the central figure. Kalyani, while out with Chuyia, one day meets a newly educated lawyer, Narayan, who happens to be a follower of Ghandi’s teachings. They are, of course, instantly attracted to each other. Narayan knows that Kalyani is a widow, but doesn’t care. He asks for her address so he could escort her home. Kalyani and Chuyia tell him and walk away.

With the introduction of Narayan, the movie gives us a glimpse of the differences in social classes in India in 1938. India retained a caste system that is based on myth. Narayan is a gentry and is for all practical purposes better off than Kalyani is as a widow. Kalyani is occasionally prostituted out by the lady who runs the ashram. Narayan promises to marry Kalyani, even though traditionalists believe a widow should never re-marry. Later, Shakuntala (and the audience finds out) that a law has just been recently passed allowing a widow to re-marry. Why has it not been mentioned before? Simply because humans tend to “ignore the laws that don’t benefit us”.

Throughout the first part of the movie, some scenes displaying beliefs about widows are shown. It is considered bad luck for a widow’s shadow to touch a bride. It is considered contamination for someone other than a widow to be touched by a widow. It is also considered a sin for a man to desire a widow. These beliefs are mitigated by the influx of Western societal ideals with some positive and some negative effects. It is Western societal ideals, the so-called “liberal thinking”, that has eased some men’s consciences about keeping a mistress or using a widow as a prostitute. This is portrayed in a scene between Narayan and his father.

Narayan’s father: “Brahmins can sleep with whomever they want, and the women they sleep with are blessed.”
Narayan: “Do you know Lord Ram told his brother, never to honor those Brahmins, who interpret the Holy Texts for their own benefit?”

Social and political changes that are occuring in 1938 India are discussed between Narayan and Kalyani at one of their first meetings alone.

Kalyani: “Are you gentry?”
Narayan: “Would it matter if I was?”
Kalyani: “Yes.”
Narayan: “I just finished my law exams. When did you become a widow?”
Kalyani: “I don’t remember. Maybe when I was nine.”
Narayan: “Was your husband good to you?”
Kalyani: “I never met him. Anyone else in your house?”
Narayan: “My mother, my father, Sadhuramji. No, I’m not married.”
Kalyani: “Good God! Why not?”
Narayan: “My father says, childhood is a time for play, not for marriage.”
Kalyani: “And your mother?”
Narayan: “If she had her way, I’d have a daughter as old as Chuyia.”
Kalyani: “Your mother’s right. That’s how things are.”
Narayan: “That’s how things were. Times are changing. All the old traditions are dying out.”
Kalyani: “All of them? But what is good should not die out.”
Narayan: “And who will decide what is good and what is not?”

This one scene has much to say about the movie. Things are changing in their society, but who is to decide what is good and what is not? Western societal beliefs are not necessarily better than Narayan’s and Kalyani’s Hindu ones. One must use personal judgment in deciding what is good out of the two. Things are never black and white.

A deep spirituality is portrayed by not only Shakuntala, but also by Narayan. The following dialogue gives us his perspective.

Narayan: “It’s from Kalida’s poem, ‘Meghdoot’.”
Kalyani: “I can’t read. Shakuntala Didi read your letter.”
Narayan: “Do you know what ‘Meghdoot’ is?”
Kalyani shakes her head “no”
Narayan: “In Sanskrit, megh means a raincloud, and doot, a messenger. The poem is about the pain of separation between two lovers.”
Kalyani: “Continue.”
Narayan: “The lover tells the cloud, it resembles Lord Vishnu in Krishna’s guise, gleaming with peacock feathers.”
Kalyani: “And the cloud heard him? How is that possible?”
Narayan: “If we believe that a statue of God can hear us, why not a cloud?”

One of the most beautiful and spiritually moving scenes in the film is the vigil the widows hold for their eldest who is dying. This is a beautiful woman called Patiraji, whom they all call “Auntie”. They take Auntie outside at her request. Auntie dies without any valuables to pay for her cremation, but Kalyani donates her savings for her cremation so that Auntie will have her proper last rites. Auntie does not die unhappily though. Throughout the movie, Auntie wishes for “yellow ladoos”, a sweet treat eaten at Hindu weddings. In a previous scene, Chuyia, after having begged for money, decides to buy a ladoo. She returns the the ashram, wakes up Auntie, and leaves her the yellow ladoo. Auntie eats the ladoo cherishing it with absolute happiness expressed in her face. Interestingly, Auntie dies later after having eaten the yellow ladoo. It seems it was the one thing she wanted before dying, and now that her wish was granted through the willfulness of a little child, she could let go and pass on.

The issue of choice comes up in the movie. Choices exist for these women even if they cannot see all of them. In many ways, this is what makes the movie sad. There is choice, but the women don’t see it and can’t seem to pull themselves out of their seeming fate. They have just accepted (even this is a choice!) what they are told is their destiny, without question, with little realization of the changes in the world outside their ashram. Ghandi in this movie is an avatar of positive change. Somewhat not surprisingly, it is Shakuntala who discovers this and that there are choices to be made, and this moves her to action. The changes that are occuring in her society now provide her with opportunities to change the fate of those around her – and she takes them. It is through Shakuntala that there is hope and choice.

The movie is beautifully filmed. The setting is almost idyllic. Some people may be appalled at the way the widows live, but this stems from a Western idealistic bias. (People in many Oriental countries sleep on rice mats on the floor, but that doesn’t mean they are impoverished. They just lead a much simpler life.) In North American society, we send our elderly to nursing homes because it is more convenient and less time-consuming than trying to take care of an elderly parent ourselves. Is this treatment of people we think of as no longer having any purpose for society really any better? In filming the everyday lives of the widows, Mehta has managed to portray a simple beauty that is difficult to find in Western society.

It is unfortunate that some people have seized upon just the political issue in the movie ignoring Mehta’s other messages in the movie. Many people seem to forget that the movie is a fictional drama, that is, the movie is specially created to evoke an emotional response. Adding the following blurb…

“There are over 34 million widows in India according to the 2001 Census. Many continue to live in conditions of social, economic and cultural deprivation as prescribed 2000 years ago by the Sacred Texts of Manu.”

…at the end of the movie further flames the burning feeling of injustice and inequality many feminists feel after watching this movie. However, note the small tiny detail in the blurb only gives the vague quantifier “many” instead of an actual figure of how many widows still live in ashrams. Also realize that it is not the Sacred Texts that should be blamed, but the interpretation of the texts. It is unfortunate too that these same people don’t take the time to question, research, and find out what really is the situation of Hindu widows. Had they done so, they would learn that the practices depicted in this movie, taking place in 1938 nearly 70 years ago, are practiced primarily in small towns and villages. The practice is virtually outdated in major cities in India. (This was confirmed through a personal Hindu friend of Nathan’s who recently returned to North America from a visit to India.) That’s not to say there are no widows living in ashrams – they would have been placed there years ago and stayed there until now – but there aren’t many new widows being forced to live in ashrams. What has to be said that isn’t being said is that the practice is fading out probably along with the practice of child brides given to older men, which is the real issue why there are so many widows to begin with.

What isn’t explained in the movie is how the Hindu religious practices developed. Before the practice was banned, fundamentalist Hindus used to practice “sati”. This was a religious practice named after the goddess Sati. The religious practice involved immolating the widow. The idea was that if the widow immolated herself on the husband’s funeral pyre, they both would receive rewards in the afterlife. Some time later, the British made the practice illegal (even if the widow was willing to immolate herself, basically a self-sacrifice). After sati was made illegal, fundamentalist Hindus began practicing what they now call “cold sati”, yes, the enforced widowhood that is depicted in Water. Apparently, they couldn’t figure out what to do with the widows because their scriptures didn’t make it clear what to do aside from the practice of sati.

There have been changes over the past 70 years regarding Hindu widows. Widows are allowed to re-marry and real examples exist as shown in this message post. The widows do inherit their deceased husband’s money and property. They lose it if they re-marry since they would share in the property of the next husband. (This I find particularly interesting because it prevents the “Black Widow” syndrome where some women keep re-marrying old, rich men just so they can inherit the money and property.) Since widows would lose property if they re-marry, some may well choose not to. Hindu women do have specific rights. The problem is that not all Hindu women are educated, and even if they are, they don’t take advantage of their rights. Also, people still believe what is written in their scriptures, but efforts to educate their society is currently taking place.

It is unfortunate that this movie is banned in India for the messages in this movie need to be heard by the same society that is depicted in the film. The country needs to be encouraged to talk about the issues there – this will allow real healing for the country as a whole to begin. The movie is not intended to point fingers at people, but rather to open intelligent discussion about many different issues that India and Hindus face. Of course, it is not easy for any country to look at its past mistakes – would you like your most shameful moment be depicted for the whole world to see? The movie may not only affect fundamentalist sensitivities, but also those remaining widows who grew up like those depicted in the movie. The movie is sure to bring up painful memories for these women, who may have finally gained some freedom and moved on.

Water and the issue of Hindu widows has become sensationalized by an primarily emotional audience who have yet to put the movie into a larger perspective. Yes, there is an inequality being presented here, but there is also inequality and injustice all over the world. (Visit Amnesty International.) There are women being abused in every country of the world. There are other people besides women being mistreated in many parts of the world. Someone somewhere is suffering (I’m reminded of the documentary Scared Sacred). Who’s to say if one group’s suffering is greater than another’s? If one really believes in equality, one should show compassion just as equally. Don’t get fixated on the small picture. The real issue here is about human dignity – not just women’s, but every single human being. As humans we need to treat each other better – regardless of race, gender, culture, spirituality or religion, age, social group, disability (politically correct to call it “differently abled”), or intelligence.

BB,
Cassandrah
Brigid’s Flame

Additional information:

Women in Hinduism (Wikipedia article)
Women in White: India’s Widows
Widows Unite to Throw Off Loneliness
Plight of Hindu Widows
Widows’ Rights and their Implementation
SC Ruling on Adoption by Hindu Widows

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