Water [subtitled]


Water is the third film in a trilogy by Indian director Deepa Mehta. My understanding, though, is that while the three films—the others are Fire and Earth—overlap to some extent in theme (they all have to do with social controversies in India and the oppression of women, children, homosexuals, and other underdogs), they are completely independent movies with different characters, set in different time periods, etc.

Water is set in 1938, in the midst of the Indian struggle for independence. This is the time of Gandhi, though he is mostly a peripheral figure in the movie. The story takes place in and around a sort of commune or convent for widows.

Whatever positive connotations terms like “commune” or “convent” (or “ashram,” to use the Indian term) might have in some contexts, however, they mostly do not have here. This institution is more of a ghetto or prison than anything sacred.

Widows in India at the time—and to a lesser but still significant extent today, as is noted at the end of the film—were grossly mistreated due to certain interpretations of Hindu scripture. With rare exceptions, widows were not permitted to remarry, and since being a wife was pretty much all a woman was supposed to do or aspire to, they became superfluous people when their husbands died, with no real role in society.

Though obviously it wasn’t in any meaningful sense their fault that their husbands had died, in effect they were punished for it. It’s not like they were respected like some sort of nuns for committing to celibacy for the rest of their life; they were treated as somehow suspect or unclean. They became like Untouchables, just not from birth.

To make it worse, arranged marriages where both the bride and the groom were children—even very young children (think, elementary school age)—were common, and any time after such a marriage was arranged, if the husband died then the wife (whether she was a 30 year old woman or a 7 year old child) became a widow for life. So they might well have never had a married life. If a husband died especially early, the child spouses might not have ever even met.

Some widows simply chose to commit suicide when their husband died rather than live as widows (though the degree to which it was a “choice” varied, since there was often very strong social pressure, at times rising to the level of coercion, to sacrifice oneself in such circumstances). Others were banished to these ashrams.

I was moved by Water. I got caught up in it from early on. There is great sadness and great beauty in this film, because it reflects some of the best and worst of humanity.

One of the reasons it’s so effective is because the women and girls of the widow ashram—and the other characters for that matter—are distinct and interesting individuals. They aren’t just a mass of interchangeable oppressed folks; it’s not like I struggled at all to keep track of who was who.

In light of this, I feel like one of the ways to convey what the movie is about—or what I took from it, what stuck with me after watching it—is to talk about some of these characters as individuals, starting with the ashram widows.

The movie opens by introducing us to Chuyia, and showing how she ended up at the ashram for widows. She is 8 years old, and doesn’t know her supposed husband and therefore is emotionally pretty indifferent when informed of his death.

She really has no idea of the ramifications of all this. She observes or participates in various rituals that mean nothing to her, and then her father cuts off her hair and drops her off at the ashram. As it dawns on her that this is intended as a permanent thing, that this is where she now is to live, she reacts with the outrage and panic one would expect.

It’s gut-wrenching to see her realize that she has been abandoned by her family and is now little more than a prisoner amongst these strangers. But I’m not going to say it’s quite as powerful a depiction of childhood trauma as the more recent Lion, though that’s very much a reflection of how extraordinary Lion is in that regard rather than being a criticism of Water. Watching the horribly frightened and lost child of Lion hit me in a kind of deep, immediate way, whereas I felt like I went through a brief stage of thinking about Chuyia’s plight first before reacting to it—it wasn’t quite as immediate.

And though her life is obviously a terrible and unjust one, and she is depressed and angry about it, it’s not all bad, and she’s not perpetually miserable. She develops positive relationships with certain of the people in the ashram, and she has occasional happy experiences. She displays a lot of spirit, and at times is something of a hellion—and gets away with it, which she certainly wouldn’t in various more oppressive circumstances I can imagine.

She’s an adorable child.

The matriarch of the ashram is a petty, unpleasant, fat old woman named Madhumati. Whether it was some formal process or just a matter of informal politicking and maneuvering that put her in charge is unclear. In certain respects she is abusive toward her widow minions and behaves like a petty dictator, though at other times she comes across as more vulnerable and pitiful, and seemingly reliant on the at least partly voluntary cooperation of the other residents. She can be a tyrant when it suits her and a mother figure when it suits her, not just as some sort of strategy but probably because she genuinely has both sides to her and has complex feelings toward her fellow ashramites.

By the way, the women seem to create their own order and authority at the ashram. It’s just them; there’s no evidence that there’s some religious or political institutional authority ruling over them and making them do what they do (beyond just the amorphous influence of religious tradition and social pressure), though I suppose there might be.

Kalyani keeps to herself more than most of the women, as they have ambivalent feelings about her. Madhumati has turned her into a prostitute in order to generate an income to spare them—well, mostly Madhumati herself, though to a lesser extent all of them—from what would otherwise be a life of even greater deprivation. Perhaps she has done the same with other of the widows now or in the past, I’m not sure. But the money certainly helps. It doesn’t look like they do much in the way of work—for pay that is; they just do the cooking and cleaning and such necessary to maintain themselves communally. They bring in some modest amount through panhandling, but that’s about it.

Kalyani and Chuyia become friends almost immediately, perhaps because Chuyia is too young to have any real sense of what Kalyani does or to judge her for it, and because they’re both sweet-natured in general.

Kalyani also happens to be really beautiful. She’s played by Lisa Ray, a model in real life, but even that understates it. I’ve seen plenty of models who weren’t as strikingly attractive as her. This is probably one of the less realistic aspects of the film; I’m guessing you wouldn’t have found many—or maybe any—women confined in widow ashrams in 1930s rural India who looked like present day Miss Universe contestants. (I’m not complaining, mind you.)

Initially Shakuntala seems like kind of a generic inhabitant of the ashram; she doesn’t stand out as, say, Madhumati (tyrant), Kalyani (exploited sex worker), or Chuyia (child) does. But over the course of the movie she develops into a particularly important and interesting character, perhaps precisely because she cannot be categorized in any simple way.

Which is not to say that the other characters are stereotypes; Water is a high quality movie with rich, complex characters. But with most of them, if you had to give a one or two sentence description of them and the role they play in the story, you could. They are heroes, victims, villains, etc., whereas Shakuntala is seemingly always somewhere in the middle between these categories.

She can be harsh with Chuyia, but also at times manifests empathy and warmth toward her. Like all of them she acknowledges Madhumati’s authority to a degree, but she maintains some skepticism and independence.

She, again like all of them (except maybe Chuyia, who isn’t yet broken in), has internalized the notion that it is somehow proper, because mandated by their religion, that women have a lower status in society than men (in one scene, when one of the widows dies, one of the others remarks “May she be reborn a man” as a kind of blessing, indicating that they pray she will take a step up when reincarnation gives her her next turn at bat), and that widows specifically be treated as virtual Untouchables the way they are.

In a way, her faith helps her to persevere (she is better able to tolerate her suffering and the suffering of those around her by reminding herself that this is all according to God’s will), yet there are also signs that certain aspects of her religion do not sit well with her. Someone praises Gandhi in her presence as a great man of faith who listens to his conscience, and she responds, “But what if our conscience conflicts with our faith?”

Again, it’s not like the other main characters don’t face conflicts, aren’t pulled in different directions, don’t have to make tough choices. But Shakuntala is the one who is hardest to predict, the one who could be strong or weak, be a conformist or a rebel, take risks or play it safe, opt for traditional faith or individual conscience. She’s the everywoman, the one who represents the fact that each of us real, ordinary people face decisions every day under a myriad of influences regarding what to believe, value, and do, decisions with sometimes life-altering consequences for oneself and others.

Those are the ashram residents with the biggest roles in the story, but one of the lesser characters that I appreciated is the elderly and somewhat feeble-minded “Auntie” Patiraji. She has a childlike nature, and spends most of the time reliving her married past, or really her wedding day itself, which was clearly the highlight of her life. No doubt she was a child at the time, and as a child what stood out to her the most were all the wonderful sweets laid out on that festive occasion. Now that’s what still stands out to her in her memories, which gives her a simultaneously humorous and poignant obsession with sweets. “Do you have a sweet?” she asks Chuyia seconds after meeting her, “Awake or asleep, even in dreams, all I see are sweets.”

Gulabi is the creepy eunuch, a sort of friend or assistant to Madhumati, the one who assists her in finding clients for Kalyani and transporting her to them at night.

Narayan is a young Brahmin intellectual, an idealist caught up in Gandhi’s social reforms and the independence movement, excited about India’s potentially casting off some of the most backward elements of its traditions.

He encounters Kalyani and Chuyia by chance on the street one day, and not surprisingly he is immediately taken with Kalyani.

Ardently he pursues her, but of course there are significant obstacles. The denizens of the ashram are certainly not receptive to a romance between the two, as widows are not eligible for such relationships, not to mention Madhumati of course has no intention of losing hold of her meal ticket. Kalyani herself, for that matter, would need plenty of convincing that she is “dateable,” given her acceptance of the social attitudes that widows and prostitutes, or worse yet someone who is both, are damaged goods whom no one would ever want as a wife.

Narayan regards any obstacles as quite insignificant relative to his love for Kalyani. It’s a youthful sort of extreme love, something one might be tempted to shake one’s head at as naïve, but being a romantic at heart I think if with age we develop to where we can no longer love like that then that is a considerable loss.

But in any case, even if you can only be truly head over heels in love like that at Narayan’s age, then cherish that capacity while you can.

But, yes, there will be costs to choosing Kalyani as a mate. He knows his parents will disapprove, and that his standing in society will suffer. But not only is he willing to pay whatever costs arise, he also is confident that they won’t be all that heavy after all. His father is a liberal thinker who probably will be easily persuaded to bless such a marriage. His mother will be tougher, but ultimately her love for her son will likely overcome her commitment to tradition and she won’t be able to bring herself to break from him.

And as for society, that’s all changing as far as he’s concerned. Until even quite recently it would have been unthinkable for a Brahmin of all people to marry a widow, but nowadays it’ll be merely frowned on rather than constitute a social death sentence, or at least so he hopes.

I don’t want to talk in terms of specifics about how Water plays out and whether Narayan and Kalyani live happily ever after and such, due to the spoiler factor, but I do want to make some general comments.

I developed a fondness for these characters as I watched the movie, for Narayan, for Kalyani, and certainly for little Chuyia, and I found myself rooting for them. A conventional happy ending would no doubt not be ideal aesthetically or politically—a feel-good story about the dashing Narayan rescuing one or two oppressed widows wouldn’t have the heft that other directions the movie might take could—but I would have been fine with it. I don’t know that I would say it was my first choice, but if not it was pretty close. I was primed for a “love conquers all” ending, especially if Narayan and Kalyani brought Chuyia out of that environment with them.

Ultimately the film doesn’t go all the way down that road the way it looks for a while like it might, but I wouldn’t say it’s all tragedy and pain and doomed lovers and such either. It’s not the unrelentingly negative realism of (the very good) Turtles Can Fly, for instance.

Again, not that either of those extremes is always a bad choice. There are terrific feel-good movies with happy endings, and there are terrific thoroughly depressing movies.

Water is an intriguing mixture. There are some hard-hitting downer moments, some genuinely sad events. But at the same time, there is inspiration and hope in this movie, a recognition that people can do the right thing, can sacrifice, can care for one other. It turns out not to be a “feel-good” movie in the most obvious, straightforward sense, but it made me feel plenty, and some of those feelings were indeed good.

A part of me still wishes it had gone all the way in a “love conquers all” direction, but I have to admit that it’s probably more powerful, and more realistic, the way it is.

I mentioned that Gandhi and the independence movement are a peripheral part of Water: He’s mentioned here and there, often in the form of rumors or myths amongst ill-informed people; Narayan is attracted to his philosophy and talks him up in his circle; and Gandhi himself appears for a few moments near the very end of the film. But although on the surface Gandhi’s role in the story is quite minor, there’s a sense in which his spirit pervades the whole film.

Gandhi has been an enormous influence on me and on my philosophy. There is no historical figure that I have studied more than him, not even close. Most notably, I’ve now read about two thirds of the massive, hundred volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi that catalogues everything of which there are surviving records that he ever wrote or said in his life. I’ve also read plenty of more conventional books by and about him, analyses of his philosophy, etc.

So naturally watching Water, the Gandhi angle was never far from my mind. I found that my background in studying Gandhi enriched the experience of seeing the movie. It gave me things to think about, enabled me to appreciate how the film provided a little different perspective on some aspects of his influence on India.

Reading the Collected Works generates, for me at least, certain impressions of Gandhi that other ways of learning about him might not. Some of those I suppose could be misleading impressions, due to the “trees” vs. “forest” problem, since, with all its repetition and minutiae, the Collected Works is about as extreme an instance of “trees” as you can imagine.

Reading about Gandhi, especially the Collected Works, has certainly made me more conscious of his humanness. He generally doesn’t feel intimidating to me, certainly nothing remotely close to perfect or divine. I feel like I could comfortably sit and have a talk with him like with any other person, as an equal. He makes mistakes. He says dumb things. He is only partially able to rise above the various prejudices and dubious beliefs and attitudes of his time and place and upbringing (though certainly he’s able to do so more than most folks, which is one of the most impressive things about him).

As far as the issues he addresses, while I never lose sight of their importance, I suppose with the extraordinary repetition—e.g., reading dozens or hundreds of speeches making basically the same points on a given topic—it’s unavoidable that my emotional reactions become dulled to an extent.

Often the issues can feel more like academic or abstract debates. You know, how good or bad a case has Gandhi succeeded in making for his position on this or that issue? What did other people on other sides of the issue have to say? To what extent were their criticisms self-interested or insincere? Etc.

What Water did for me is put the focus back on the crucial matter of how these issues played out in people’s lives. Further it served as a reminder that Gandhi truly did inspire countless people at a level that you would indeed associate with a divine or semi-divine figure, that however he comes across to me most of the time, there are reasons to perceive him as a “larger than life” figure, probably as much so as just about anyone in history.

Think about how, if people had a time machine, I’ll bet one of the most urgent things they would want to experience would be to see Jesus, to hear him preach, to get some sense of what he was like as a person. Well, there was an opportunity for something akin to that as recently as the 20th century.

Or as Einstein put it, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

That kind of hero worshipping attitude or whatever you want to call it isn’t one that comes natural to me, toward Gandhi or anyone else. But there were elements to this movie—the very end most notably—that connected with the maybe 5% of me that does harbor a sort of awe like that for Gandhi.

The Gandhi of Water is the social revolutionary Gandhi. Gandhi was so apt to put his teachings in conventional religious terms, and to couch even his advocacy for change in terms of returning to some supposedly purer time, that it’s easy to think of him as a traditionalist and to underappreciate just how radical he was in many ways.

Gandhi’s teachings certainly were consistent with certain strains of Hinduism (and of religion in general), but almost anything would be since religions state an enormous number of things, often contradictory. One can always cherry pick parts of a religion to fit one’s preferences, and that’s what Gandhi did.

But then he never claimed otherwise. He openly stated on numerous occasions that if his conscience and reason led him to believe something was true that happened to conflict with Hinduism or any other religion, he would always choose truth. But insofar as there was some plausible interpretation of his faith that was consistent with the truth as he saw it, then he preferred to avoid the conflict by opting for that interpretation.

For example, there is certainly a tradition of pacifism and nonviolence in Hinduism and related religions, but it is no more an uncontroversially essential component of Hinduism than would be many principles that are inconsistent with it.

So, yes, the sorts of things Gandhi advocated could be shown to have some religious backing, but to at least as great a degree they tended to threaten ideas and principles regarded as sacrosanct by many religious people, both the masses and the sort of powerful people whose position on top depended in part on religious ideology. Gandhi strove to upend much that such folks held most near and dear.

Perhaps as important as any Gandhian principle was a fierce opposition to any form of untouchability. That doesn’t mean just that he regarded the oppressed status of the so-called Untouchables themselves as blatantly unjust, though he did, but that he advocated a much more complete egalitarianism, where regarding anyone as somehow inherently inferior to you, as having fewer rights, less dignity as a human being, was a sin.

One component of this was his lifelong support for the rights of women. No doubt modern feminists could point to many aspects of his teachings that are blatantly politically incorrect by today’s standards (just as many Untouchables, then and now, not only failed to accept him as some kind of leader on the issue of the eradication of untouchability, but in fact bitterly regarded him—ludicrously I might add—as their enemy), but in a deep and important sense he certainly embraced the notion that men and women are essentially equal.

He would have been greatly pained to hear anyone praying that a loved one be reincarnated as a man.

On more specific issues relevant to the movie, he was adamantly opposed to child marriages, and to the abusive treatment of widows condoned by some elements of Hindu tradition.

But another interesting angle to think about in connection with the film is what Gandhi would have made of Narayan—who was a big Gandhi fan of course—falling in love with Kalyani and seeking to rescue her from her miserable plight.

I would hope, and I’m pretty confident it’s true, that in the main the Gandhi I know would have looked with favor on Narayan and his efforts. However, he certainly would not have offered an unqualified endorsement, mostly because he had an ascetic opposition to romantic love, and even more so to sexual love.

If I were to channel Gandhi, I believe his take on the situation would be something like this:

The way Kalyani is being forced to live is totally and utterly wrong, and to free her from it would be a good thing. That is, as long as, one, the means used to free her are consistent with the principles of truth and nonviolence, and, two, it is recognized that while bettering the lot of any one individual has value, what is really necessary is change in the institutions themselves, brought about by change in public opinion and public values, so that all such widows may be freed.

Furthermore, Narayan’s motive in assisting Kalyani is to be admired insofar as it is clearly based on love and empathy for another human being, and he is to be further admired for his willingness to pay a social price—albeit a modest one—to move forward with his intentions.

However there is an important flaw in Narayan’s motivations. Not so great a flaw as to invalidate what he is doing, but a flaw that shows that his approach is far short of an ideal one, and that he has much room remaining for moral growth.

Narayan has picked Kalyani to help, to sacrifice for, for the inappropriate reason of sexual attractiveness. Not for just that reason—surely he genuinely opposes oppression of widows in general—but it’s undeniable that that is a big part of his motivation.

Kalyani is no more worthy of his love and support than any other widow being treated unjustly, or than any other suffering person.

A commitment to celibacy is the best choice for those who wish to truly live a moral life of service. We need to defeat the sexual impulse within us, and even to transcend gender. Whether Narayan helps Kalyani or someone else entirely, it should be a matter of total indifference to him what the person’s race, religion, gender, or anything else is, whether they have a pleasing or displeasing external physical appearance, etc. And he should neither seek nor accept a relationship with any such person that goes beyond that of a brother and sister or two brothers.

So I don’t think Gandhi would have been at all comfortable with Narayan’s obviously non-platonic feelings for Kalyani, but I don’t think he would have condemned him and his actions. I don’t think his response would have been “That’s bad,” but rather, “That’s good, but here’s something better.”

As for me, I don’t in general share Gandhi’s anti-sex, ascetic philosophy. On the other hand, I do recognize that our duties to others are obviously not dependent on our being attracted to them, and that there is a sense in which Gandhian motives are of greater moral worth than the sort of motives Narayan manifests here.

But I suppose my attitude is that I struggle enough to truly love and properly treat even those who are “easiest” to love—the super hot women, the people who have treated me the best in my life, the nice people, the people who manifest gratitude when you do right by them, etc. If I can at times somehow manifest love for such folks to some significant degree, I’m going to go with that and feel good about it, not nitpick it. Would I hope then to expand my capacity to love beyond some small circle of people like that, people I developed love for due to such factors as having been sexually attracted to them? Absolutely. I recognize that living by a principle of “love your enemies” is even higher than living by a principle of “love your friends.” But it’s damn hard even managing the latter, and while I hope to make whatever progress I can toward the former as I morally evolve, I’m not going to sacrifice what modest progress I’ve already made toward the latter in pursuit of it.

So I would love to be able to give myself over to love the way Narayan does in Water, and if I’m only capable of being inspired to do so when the object of my feelings is an incredible babe like Kalyani, well, then I recognize that as a limitation in me that I need to work on, but I’d still follow my heart with her and feel good about it.

But getting back to the fact that Gandhi’s philosophy is in many ways a radical one that threatens power relations and overturns much that many people are firmly emotionally committed to, it seems that Mehta’s work too has generated great unease and bitter opposition.

I read a little background on this trilogy of films after I watched Water. Theaters in India showing her films have been attacked, and the filming of Water had to be moved to another country after protestors stormed the set and destroyed it. Mehta, in fear of her life, has had to live under constant police protection. All because she dared to create art critical of some people’s notions of such things as traditional marriage and the traditional treatment of women and of widows specifically.

Which goes to prove that Hinduism is plagued by the same Focus on the Family type idiots that all religions seem to be.

Of the trilogy, I have seen only this film: Water. It is by far the most critically acclaimed of the three, so if one were to see only one, then this would be the one. I was so impressed by it, so moved by it, however, that even if the other two—Fire and Earth—aren’t quite as good, I’d be more than willing to give them a try if I happen to come across them in the future.

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