WATER (Deepa Mehta, 2005)
According to the Sacred Texts of Manu, a woman has three choices when her husband dies. She can choose to burn with him on the funeral pyre, live a life of self-denial, or marry her husband's younger brother if the family permits. Set in India in 1938, Deepa Mehta's WATER, the third film in her elements trilogy, observes the lives of Hindu widows at an ashram.
The film begins with eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) being taken to a residence for widows. She was in an arranged marriage. Unfair as it seems, the passing of Chuyia's husband, a man she didn't really know, dictates how she will live the majority of her life. Chuyia does not understand why she is being separated from her family or why she must spend a lifetime mourning a stranger, but she finds a friend in Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow who is not prepared to accept her fate.
WATER simmers at the injustice heaped upon these women because of religious tradition. Mehta shows how the widows are victims of a patriarchal system passed down for two thousand years. Through no choice of their own, they are forced into lives of misery. Destitute and desperate, the more attractive widows are prostituted to help the group survive. In spite of sensing that they are being mistreated, the women know no better than to accept what they have been taught is proper.
In criticizing religion as a means of oppression and control, Mehta courts controversy but not in an irresponsible or self-righteous manner. (Some Hindu fundamentalists would beg to differ. During her first attempt to make the film, protesters burned the sets and an effigy of the director.) WATER is intended to draw attention to the issue and affect social change. Mehta's accomplishment is conveying the message through a sad and beautiful film.
Although set nearly seventy years ago, a time that puts Mahatma Gandhi's social movement in the background, the outrage continues. At the end of WATER we're informed that the 2001 census accounts for 34 million widows living like the women in the film. It's a shocking statistic and one that points out that there's still a long way to go to fulfill the hope in the final shot, a long take in which an older woman looks back accusingly while a train in the background takes a child widow to safety.