Director Deepa Mehta unleashes a daring, heart-wrenching, and confrontational Hindi language Canadian film in the Oscar-nominated Water. It is the last of an unstrung element trilogy, with Fire (1996), and Earth (1998) preceding it. While it confronts themes such as oppression and displacement, I call it “daring” in the literal sense, as its production was delayed due to violent protests caused by the alleged misrepresentation of the treatment of widows in orthodox Hinduism.
The film is set in 1938, when Mahatma Gandhi’s separatist movement was gaining momentum in Varanasi, India. Water stars prominent Bollywood actors Seema Biswas, John Abraham, and Waheeda Rehman. It centers around the story of the defiant eight-year-old child widow, Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam), who is forcefully transported into an ashram with her head shaved after the death of a husband she does not remember marrying.
Scenic shots of the titular element are brilliantly captured by Director of Photography, Giles Nuttgens. This is especially true of the spectacular opening shots of Chuyia’s home before she is sent away. Water continues to loom throughout the film in the form of rain, wells, and public bathhouses as Chuyia develops familial-like relationships with Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and Narayan (John Abraham). Water is a visual treat complemented by the masterful compositions of A.R. Rahman.
To me, Water is a seminal film as it tells the story of the stigmatization of widows in India under orthodox Hinduism. When Chuyia asks questions like, “Where do the male widows go?”, it is a reminder for society to introspect. Water doesn’t just fault the interpretation of religion, but also those who disallow other interpretations. Mehta does not just blame ignorance and poverty but chooses to explore the complex networks in which women, men, and priests operate to keep alive a social and religious status quo that mostly empowers the patriarchy.