Film: Elemental Images

Water sheds light on the plight of India's many widows

Jun 7, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Fox Searchlight

Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and Narayan (John Abraham) share a forbidden love in Water.

Water completes writer/director Deepa Mehta's elemental trilogy that began with 1996's Fire and continued with Earth two years later. Thematically, the first two stories featured struggles with independence, the double helix of the personal and the political. While India and Pakistan gained a measure of freedom from Britain in 1947, women continue to stake gains on the cultural front. The concluding installment looks to the past, possibly to chart the initial ripple that created the advancing wave of change.

Set in the late 1930s, Water focuses on a Hindu ashram in the holy city of Varanasi for widows forced to live in penitence on the outskirts of society. At that time, widows were generally offered only three choices upon the death of a husband within the cultural mores: They could throw themselves on the funeral pyre with their deceased husbands, marry a brother-in-law (if one was available) or retreat to an ashram and offer lifelong penance for the sin of surviving their husbands.

The ashrams, populated by women marked as objects of scorn and shame by their shaved heads, existed on the lowest fringes of society, supported through begging and prostitution. Mehta introduces viewers to this world through the arrival of Chuyia (Sarala), an 8-year-old widow who likely wasn't completely aware of her initial marital arrangement. The young girl's confusion and anger finds a focal point in the tyrannical Madhumati (Manorama), the elder widow reigning over the ashram.

Chuyia's childish outbursts are perfectly natural responses to the imposed rules within this curious sub-class.

She is both an alien and an outcast in many ways, reminiscent of the mutants of the X-Men comics or the religious natives of Frank Herbert's Dune series based on a futuristic extrapolation of Middle Eastern cultures within a science fiction framework. A more resonate comparison might be the humanist fantasy dreamscapes of Octavia Butler. Mehta's Water offers a glimpse into a past where the seeds of Butler's explorations of "Others" were planted.

The looming presence of Mahatma Gandhi speaks to the Cultural Revolution to come. As Chuyia begins to challenge the limits of her situation as best she can, the story shifts to Kalyani (Lisa Ray), another widow at the ashram who rebels against Madhumati by not shaving her head and who dares to fall in love again with Narayan (John Abraham).

Anxiously awaiting the uprising Gandhi espoused, which would lead the people to break free of British imperialism and their own self-imposed restrictions, Narayan is an obvious, conventional male heroic figure. But Mehta never simply allows him to save any of the widows. The women, these aliens, must determine their own fates in this brave new world that is emerging.

The luminous Ray, with her flowing hair and Westernized beauty, stands in stark contrast to the striking features of the more mature widows in the ashram. Shaving their heads was intended to brand the widows, to make them "ugly" and unworthy of love; instead it accentuates their allure, their "Otherness." A quietly powerful dignity takes shape within the ashram infused by the sweeping changes just outside the gates. Unfortunately, Mehta drowns audiences in the sea of faces without giving us more of these widows to anchor us in their plight.

The recent X-Men film retreated a bit from social commentary, content to allow its mutant factions to issue "terrorist" threats and then wage war. The intriguing questions of sexuality and sexual orientation explored more fully in the first two installments of the X-Men series are briefly referenced as the troops march out. Yet Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is little more than an ashram for mutants where the women of X-Men, those that are more fully realized, bear the emotional weight, much as in Water.

In fact, the struggles of a young woman (Anna Paquin's Rogue) eager to reach out to others, another (Famke Jannsen's Dr. Jean Grey) who develops a destructive split-personality disorder based on duality of good and evil within her and finally a woman (Rebecca Romjin as Mystique) with a chameleon-like ability to be anyone she wants to be could have added to the elemental flow.

There is a power in the feminine that we seem to feel more comfortable with relegating to second-class status. Men see themselves as reservoirs of strength and intelligence, but women must be kept in their place. What is the root of the fear that drives this urge? And why, as in the case of Madhumati, are other women so willing to ally themselves with their oppressors?

The humanist in Mehta maintains an element of hope, despite the unfortunate realities of India's more than 39 million widows who continue to suffer in isolation. By focusing only on the most "attractive" voice, Water silences a deafening cry that could turn the tide. Grade: C