The APAHM Project Day 12: Water
Director: Deepa Mehta
Where to watch it: Rent or Buy from all major platforms (or there’s a free, full-length film on YouTube ;))
Why it made the list:
This film was recommended to me and I wanted to make sure Indian Americans (or in this case, Canadian) were represented in this project, expanding past well-known names like Shyamalan and Kaling. Mehta’s “Water” is the third and final installation in her “Elements” trilogy. It was Canada’s selection to submit for an Academy Award nomination, which it earned for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie is mature, sad, and beautiful. Amidst the sad premise, it still managed to make me smile from time to time and I found myself glued to the screen from beginning to end.
“Still waters run deep.” That is the water analogy I found best to describe this film. When I read the Google summary, it didn’t seem very “up my alley.” When the film begins, we see a picturesque India (actually the fiIm was made in Sri Lanka because of protestors in India) and a young girl having fun with her father. You think, okay where is this going? You know from the summary it‘s a movie about widows, why is there a little girl? Then the first line is delivered as the father asks the girl if she’s aware her husband has died.
And here’s when the movie gets deep.
Chuyia is an 8-year old widow. Her father shaves her head and puts her in a white sari and drops her off at the steps of an ashram. Chuyia asks for her mother several times, not knowing what’s happening, and that is the last time she sees her father. Chuyia acts how any 8 year old would in this situation. However, she quickly befriends 3 of the widows, including Didi and Kalyani, and detests another, the head widow named Madhumati. Chuyia doesn’t really understand what’s happening or why she’s at the ashram. She doesn’t enjoy praying and doesn’t understand why other members of society treat her and the other widows differently.
A quick summary of the rest of the film: Kalyani falls in love with a scholar named Narayan, who wishes to marry her despite the stigma surrounding widows (more on this later). Kalyani is also being pimped out by Madhumati in order to bring in income for the ashram, and her clients include her fiancée‘s father. Realizing this connection, Kalyani leaves Narayan and attempts to return to the ashram. Rejected by Madhumati, Kalyani drowns herself in the nearby river. Needing to replace Kalyani, Madhumati sends Chuyia with the pimp to Narayan’s father. Didi realizes what has happened but is too late in getting to Chuyia. Didi, who has been struggling between her faith and the laws surrounding widows, takes Chuyia to see Gandhi who is speaking at the train station and begs someone to take Chuyia away on the train. Narayan, who is aboard the train, takes Chuyia from Didi and they ride off together.
There are several themes in this film but the most prominent is the ostracizing of the widows. They are taught to live in isolation and mourn their husbands. Another woman also claims widows are unclean and shouldn’t run around so carelessly, as if they are not allowed to feel any forms of happiness or fun. They also cannot eat fried foods or sweets. Narayan’s mother says it is a sin for him to marry a widow. Didi states there has to be a reason why the widows are sent away to the ashram and Narayan explains widows are seen as financial burdens to the family - an extra mouth to feed, an extra room occupied, there is no spiritual reason.
More than this is the theme of the oppression of women. Chuyia innocently asks where male widows go to live, where the other widows angrily express that it would be a tragedy for a man to be a widow. Other examples include Kalyani and Chuyia’s prostitution and the fact that marrying off young girls was a common practice.
The symbol of water is obviously significant. Several scenes take place by the Ganges River, where the people wash themselves and where Didi collects Holy water to anoint the area where the widows meet with the priest. The water also separates the area where the widows live and where Narayan lives, a physical separation to reflect their societal one. Upon Chuyia‘s arrival, Madhumati threatens to throw her into the river if she doesn’t behave. Lastly, water is how Kalyani decides to kill herself. Water is my favorite of the four elements; it’s elegant and calm yet can be powerful and destructive, all of which this movie includes. It’s also the element I associate most with life. But water also flows, it stops for no one. The world keeps moving and leaves the widows alone, ostracized, and stuck in the past. They are left to mourn a husband some of them have never even met. The society doesn’t care about the widows, their rights, or freedoms. So even though the widows’ lives stand still, the water keeps moving.
Does it deserve to stay on the list?
I had no idea what to expect when watching this movie but I’m glad that I was pleasantly surprised in how much I enjoyed it. For those of us unfamiliar with Hindu rituals and history, seeing this movie through the innocent eyes of Chuyia makes us feel like we are experiencing everything with her. It’s tragic and beautiful and oddly empowering in the way that you disagree with the treatment of the characters and want to fight for them. If you have never seen this film, I highly recommend it. The acting was superb, the setting was beautiful, and I enjoyed learning a little more about the Hindu culture.