Writer and Director: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Seema Biswas as Shakuntala, Lisa Roy as Kalyani, John Abraham as Narayan, Manorama as Madhumati, Sarala Kariyawasam as Chuiya and Raghuvir Yadav as Gulabi.
Running Time: 114 minutes
Water, in general, is a story about Indian widows who are forced to enter “widow houses” by their own families to relieve themselves of financial and emotional burdens, where they struggle to survive by begging and often turn to prostitution.
Set in 1938 in British-ruled India, a time when Mahatma Gandhi and the anti-colonial movement are on the rise, the film shows the plight of a group of fifteen widows who live in the holy city of Veranasi, near the holy river - Ganges. The main aim of the film seems to portray the social, religious and economic situations of India in 1930s and try to find out reasons behind the nastiest situation of widows in India.
Story and the Characters
The film revolves around three women. Two of them, Chuiya and Kalyani are full of life and also the youngest of the widows living in the house. They want to break-free from the state of widowhood and live a life of their own choice. Chuiya is an innocent seven year old girl who is unaware about social and religious norms of the society and thus fears nothing. She has innocent questions to ask which are very hard to answer even to a religion as old as Hinduism. Her one-linear like, “A widow feels pain because she is half alive.”, “Where do men widows live?” are powerful enough to show the disparity between men and women that Hinduism provisions. Similarly, Kalyani is a pretty woman who has been lured into prostitution by Madhumati, the chief of widow house. Madhumati is a corrupt old widow who smokes marijuana provided by the eunuch and local pimp Gulabi. It is Gulabi who updates Madhumati about the recent happenings around the city and also helps her in prostituting Kalyani by finding out the local Brahmins or high-caste elites. The third woman Shakuntala, is a devout Hindu who is caught in between her religious faith and her human cravings. She is the one who is attached to Chuyia, because she sees herself reflected in Chuyia; and strives to give Chuyia what she had lacked.
The film starts off with Chuiya's husband's death, and her disposal to widow house. The story moves on with Narayan, a follower of Gandhi, falling in love with Kalyani despite of her being a widow. But, Kalyani’s suicide after knowing that Narayan’s father is one of the men she has slept with, takes Narayan back to Gandhi, and in the end we see Shakuntala handing over Chuyia to Narayan. In the last scene of the movie, the train departs leaving teary eyed Shakuntala behind, taking Chuyia into a brighter future.
Reasons for setting the movie in 1930s
There seems to be two key reasons for setting the story of the film in 1930s not in 2005 - the time when the film was made. The first reason is to let compare the audience the situation of widows in India between 1930s and present time, which is almost similar. With this the film has questioned the notion of ‘21st century world’ where the activists working in the field of women rights assume that the condition of women at present has changed a lot in comparison to past century. Another reason for setting the film in 1930s is to indirectly show that even the reformer like Mahatma Gandhi have not been able to persuade people to change their perception towards women in general and widowhood in particular.
Also, in showing the hardships that the widows are forced into, the film Water has focussed on social, religious and economic reasons behind.
Water has powerfully pointed out some of the underlying economic factors behind the dispossession of widows by their own families. Through Narayan, the film explains that simply to reduce one mouth to feed and save four saris per year, widows are disposed in widow house. And while the treatment of widows is disguised as religion, Narayan concludes, “It’s all about money.” These few sentences illuminate the situation in an extremely powerful manner.
It was due to religious contents in the film, shooting of Water was halted by Shiva Sena, back in 2000 AD. Shiva Sena, an organization working under Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), burnt down the sets of the film fearing that Water would portray India and her customs in poor light to the West. Finally, the shooting of the film was done in Sir Lanka.
Yes, the film has a lot religious content and has mercilessly attacked negative aspects of the religion. By showing the Auntie’s clinging for ladoo even after she reaches the final years of her life, the film is questioning the state of bairagya (detachment from worldly desires), for which the religion orders widows to live a life of a hermit.
While the film has predominantly accused religion for the main reason behind the horrible situation of widows, it also shows even religion is adapting to the need of changing times. In his conversation with Shakuntala, Baba (the priest in the 'ghats,' or steps, leading down to the Ganges) based on holy texts, explains that a widow has three options: (1) to throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre, (2) to marry his brother (if he has one and it is permitted by the family), or (3) to live in poverty in a group home for widows. But he is quick to add that the time is changing and there is a law that favours widow remarriage. Unlike many other religious servants, he was pro-active in understanding the importance of Gandhi as he tells Shakuntala: "Gandhiji is one of the few in the world who listens to his voice of conscience".
The film has identified patriarchy as the main social reason behind the dreadful condition of widows. Upon the death of Auntie, remark by a widow, "God willing, she'll be reborn as a man!" shows the amount of importance contemporary society had placed on being a man. Similarly, in showing that the worst enemies of the widows are the widows themselves, the film shows patriarchy as an agency camouflaged in it. Also, the misuse of religion by men of the so-called high class Brahmins and elites to keep the illiterates and poor frightened in the name of god but they themselves exploiting even the ‘worthless’ widows shows the patriarchy’s role in the continued torture that widow are forced into.
While showing the social reasons behind the plight of the widow, the film also highlights the positively changing social scenario around India. The message of changing social conditions of India has been portrayed through Mahatma Gandhi and his follower Narayan.
There is very little to complain about the story and the way it has been told. Deepa Mehta has done a brilliant job. But when it comes to casting, though the role played by Seema Biswas as Shakuntala, Manorama as Madhumati, Sarala Kariyawasam as Chuiya and Raghuvir Yadav as Gulabi are brilliant match, the film has failed especially in identifying actors for the role of Narayan and Kanyani. Lisa Ray as Kalyani, a former model, is far too elegant as a member of a poverty-stricken widow house and a prostitute. John Abrahm as Narayan, one of Bollywood’s fashionable hero lacks the appeal of a conscious political figure. At times he looks like a model dressed in dhoti and kurta for a photo session.
Water is a movie primarily aimed to depict the social and religious picture of India in reference to widows. It has, without mercy, attached the bad practices of the religion and has also not failed to adore the changing social and religious scenario in India.
Important of all, the movie still has its relevance besides being a story of 1930s because the condition of widows in India is at present almost similar to that of 1938 if not exactly the same. It is shocking to know that widow houses are still operating in Veranasi.