There is a reason why they call the Indian film industry Bollywood. It is a massive culture in of itself, catering to an estimated population of 1.3 billion people, and its films are not necessarily limited to its respective market. Yet, when people of the Western world hear the term Bollywood, there is a tendency to equate it with romantic comedies or grand-sweeping dramas that appeal to commercial sensibilities. Such a limited scope could not be further from the truth, however, as this is a rich cinematic institution that could artistically rival that of any Western film, and in spite of being an Indo-Canadian coproduction, Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film Water is a shining example of what the filmmakers of India have to offer.
Set in 1938 India, at a time where the country was still under British rule, and widows were considered second class citizens. Treated as financial burdens and carriers of bad karma, widows were forced into ashrams, destined to live out the remainder of their lives in renunciation, which conveniently accords with ancient Hindu texts. This is particularly problematic considering child marriages were a regular occurrence, wherein lies the story of Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam), an eight-year-old widow left at an ashram following the sudden death of her significantly older husband.
What impressed me so about Mehta’s handling of the film’s delicate subject matter is that, while it is indeed a critique of outdated traditions under which women can be unjustly and hypocritically controlled by the patriarchy, she does so whilst maintaining a respect to Hinduism, which, like Ghandi, she recognises can be an otherwise fulfilling belief system that is simply twisted by others.
An emphatic example of how Mehta expresses this is through Chuyia’s friend and role model Kalyani (Lis Ray). Kalyani, who possesses a youthful beauty otherwise unseen in the ashram, is pimped out by its matriarch Madhumati, which in itself is a dreadful act, but it not a solely selfish one either. It is as much an act of self-preservation as it is a means of maintaining the ashram which houses the fourteen women. Furthermore, it is emblematic of the film’s ethical complexities, which are not always as black and white as they seem. Instead of making an outright villain of this particular character, Mehta indicates that it is the perverse system under which they are acting that is at fault, as Madhumati too is a victim of the laws which subjugate widows.
Visually, Mehta themes’s are captured in poetic imagery that is complemented by rhythmic editing, which is capped off by its enthralling and heartbreaking narrative. As these elements coalesce, it is in its minute moments that Mehta’s considerable skills as a filmmaker are fully expressed, whether it be a momentary flash of emotion on a character’s face, or the subtle caress from a gentry that evokes a greater reaction from Chuyia, out of desperation for the maternal love she has lost through abandonment.
And the writing is just as accomplished. While Mehta was responsible for the broad strokes of the story, Anurag Kashyap does an outstanding job of embodying the themes and considerations of Mehta’s intentions, which the director consequently translates onscreen with the deepest contemplative respect, while still avoiding dilution of her social critiques, which are as relevant in today’s society as it is for 1930s India.
This is in spite of Water’s limited scope on colonialism as a whole, as it seemingly lets the British as occupiers off the hook. Nonetheless, it is done in favour of realising a deeply personal and complex story that is consistently propelled by its uncompromising depiction of characters who are forced to exist in a world of grey, which adds a consistently meaningful depth to every action and consequent reaction.
Deepa Mehta is an immensely accomplished filmmaker, renowned for her works in the realm of social criticism and ability to visually express such criticisms in a reserved, yet hard-hitting manner. Water’s final image lingered in my mind for a time after watching it, tinged as it was with a bittersweet essence, while its resounding message, to me, is eternally significant. Mehta’s meditative work is a must-see.