"Water": the river runs dry By Maja Bogojevic

in 50th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Maja Bogojević

A different treatment of nature is displayed in the film Water, the last part in trilogy (after Fire and Earth) which won Deepa Mehta a Premio de la Juventud, focuses on the real life of women, on those historical and sociological phenomena we rarely hear or speak about. The film depicts the lives of about 14 widowed Hindu women, lives that are still lived by about 34 million women today in India. The director herself admits that, in spite of being a Hindu, she knew or understood little of this ruthless old Hindu custom.

The film is set in 1938 India, in the midst of the liberation movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, fighting not only for the Indian independence from the British, but also for uprooting various aspects of social injustice and for abolition of ‘Hindu widows’.

According to Hindu beliefs, when a woman gets married, she takes on a half of her husband, becomes half of the man. But if he dies, it is considered that half of her dies too. 2000 years old sacred texts prescribe, then, three options for the widow: she can marry a younger brother of her husband (if he has one), ‘die out’ together with her husband or lead a life of total abnegation. The third option is the one practiced most frequently.

The opening of the film gets to the heart of the matter: a wedding ceremony is transformed into a funeral. An eight-year-old girl, Chuyia, is married, but her husband dies on the same night. As his body is burnt on a river bank, Chuyia prepares for a new life, accepting the destiny others have planned and decided for her. She will enter ashram, where she will spend the rest of her life dedicated to the memory of her dead husband, purifying herself of the ‘sins he committed in his lifetime’.

While her head is being shaved (a mark of a Hindu ashram widow), we see and feel her pain in a close up of her tiny feet, cramped, spasmic movements of instinctive resistance. No screams, no noise, no sound is heard. Just silence of the routinely performed task – a normal Hindu ritual. And then the shot of Chuyia’s scared, but lively, clever, fiery big eyes.

Women, even young girls, were married at that time to much older men, predominantly for economic reasons. If a husband dies, the newly-wed and ‘newly-widowed bride’ becomes a financial burden for her family and it is much easier to send her away to ashram, under the pretense of obedience to the old sacred texts. In ashram these young women will lead futile existences, and under the mask of false spirituality they will be able to sacrifice themselves for the men they probably barely knew, let alone loved.

Ashram itself is a microcosm of Hindu Indian women, a true gallery of different female characters: they are scared, discreet, silent, in pain, hurt, resigned, distrustful, psychologically dead, aggressive, smiling, envious, corrupted, hardened, manipulative, etc. The only thing binding them together, that they have in common is their widowhood – sacrifice for their dead husbands.

As another female director, crowned with a Premio de la Juventud for her film Sabah (outside official section) at the Festival, Ruba Nadda said: “There exist many women in the whole world, not only Muslim women, who sacrifice their life (for others)”. In the setting of the beautiful surrounding nature, it seems rather ‘unnatural’, incongruous, if not absurd, that these women should suffer such injustice, harsh destiny completely outside their control and imposed on them by (often incorrectly interpreted) 2000 year old books…

Ashram is controlled by a despotic Madhumati, herself a widow, who catches a glimpse of the outside world through gossips, brought to her by Gulabi, a eunuch pimp. This is how she hears of the Gandhi movement, but dismisses it as anarchic blasphemy. In exchange for some marijuana, she sells him some of ‘her’ youngest and most beautiful women for prostitution with male members of wealthy castes. These young women are visibly marked, as they are the only ones who are allowed to grow long hair. One of them is beautiful Kalyani. Madhumati has been using her as a prostitute in order to pay for her hedonistic whims and Kalyani fears the same destiny might befall on Chuyia, a new young widow, a curious and lively girl, with her eyes wide open to the world and knowledge.

Kalyani spends her days playing with a dog Kaalu and praying to Krishna, particularly believing in one rule, by which she tries to live her life: ‘Live like a beautiful lotus flower, untouched by dirty waters in which it is floating’. Although Kalyani believes she can be this beautiful flower, other women, paradoxically, despise her and avoid contact with her so as not to get dirty by her ‘impurities’.

Shakuntala (superbly played by Seema Biswas) is probably the most enigmatic of all women: discreet, pensive, silent and reserved, she embodies the ambivalence and confusion, felt by most women around her, the dichotomy between the religious beliefs they want to live by and the despair felt at being compelled to spend the rest of their lives imprisoned in ashram.

Gilles Nuttgens’s excellent photography and Mehta’s balanced direction contrast the lyrical fluidity of visual narrative in its ‘watery’ camera movements with the stone-like faces and sad lives of these women.

Salman Rushdie said of the film: “It has a great quality to tell the story from the interior of the characters, depicting a human drama and moving our heart in an unforgettable way”.