Eight-year-old Chuyia, the youngest and most petite of the heroines of Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), the closing film in the director’s Elements trilogy, has a hard road ahead of her on the death of her much older spouse. This child bride newly widowed still preserves her luxuriant long black hair in the opening scenes but it is destined not to last, like much else she has counted on in her desperately short life. With her regretful father by her side, she is conducted to a widow’s ashram in the holy city of Varanasi. The Hindu scripture-prescribed fate laid down for widows is bleak and austere in India in 1938 and Chuyia’s first glimpses of that world bring out her rebellious streak.
The other widows resident at the ashram, much older women for the most part, have long had any glow they might have once possessed completely obliterated, but Madhumati, the forbidding femme in charge, knows right away that she may have a battle on her hands to tame the feisty little girl. Chuyia gains an ally, of sorts, in the hardy Shakuntala and another friend of equal importance to her in the figure of the gentle Kalyani.
Kalyani occupies a position of both privilege and ostracism at the house. She has a room of her own at the top of a flight of stairs, keeps a pet dog and, unlike the other widows, has been allowed to retain long, flowing hair. The reason she has not been ‘de-feminised’ in this fashion is because the ganja smoking Madhumati, with the aid of a friend, prostitutes her out to wealthy Brahmin clients across the river in order to gain enough funds both to meet the household’s rent and bankroll her preferred indulgences.
In due course Kalyani commits the unforgivable ‘sin’ of falling for handsome Narayan, a Gandhi idealist attracted to the great reformer’s liberalism, ideas shocking to both Madhumati and Gulabi, the pimp who rows Kalyani back and forth across the river on the nights when her services are called for. Unbeknownst to Narayan, one of Kalyani’s client is his own father.
When this shattering truth dawns on her, the untenability of her situation leads Kalyani to drastic action. The step she takes serves to remind one of the dual nature of the sacred river Ganges. It is both the washer away of sins and uncleanliness and also the place where the Hindu faithful cremate their dead. Unrepentant, the practical Madhumati, who has been the pivotal decider of Kalyani’s fate since she, like Chuyia, came to the ashram as a widowed child bride, later enacts a plan to begin prostituting Chuyia similarly.
Witness to all these goings on, not unlike a chorus in a Greek tragedy, is Shankuntala (brilliantly depicted by Seema Biswas). What happens when your conscience conflicts with your faith, is the question that gradually takes on more and more resonance in her mind. Devout, dedicated and selfless, on the one hand she desires to embrace the lot of a widow faithful to the traditional code though she knows in her heart of hearts that it is the cruellest of unjust fates for a woman. Furthermore, with respect to Chuyia, the basest abuse, in the name of religion, will be committed if she does not act.
Ms Mehta’s sympathy is with the widows in a society where Hinduism is misinterpreted for fundamentalist, personal ends, specifically in this instance the warped misogynist view that widows somehow cause the deaths of their spouses and must subsequently become renunciants, thereby expiating bad karma. Consigned to dilapidated ashrams, with one meal a day to sustain them, they will be less of a burden on their families and society. Understated, beautiful cinematography occasionally explodes into flashes of lush colour, notably on the rare occasions when the widows are permitted the freedom to celebrate. It is counterpointed by the soundtrack, which features songs and a hauntingly lilting background score. The film is based on the Bapsi Sidwha novel of the same name.