Over the last several years, cinema has made a noticeable move toward more issue-oriented topics. Call it the documentary influence or an offshoot of the indie explosion of the last decade, or even the re-emergence of the foreign film, but more and more films are using the power of the medium to expose various forms of injustice and social indignities around the world. Rarely are these films well received by the institutions responsible for the dynamic on film, but few films have faced the same level of pressure as Deepa Mehta’s Water, the third film in her “elemental trilogy”, which was shut down by religious fundamentalists in 2000 (only to be completed in 2004 under a fake title).
The reason being that in a culture where a strict adherence to religious ideals is a fundamental way of life, Water dares suggest the ideals and, to an extent, the religion itself is a flawed construct of economic convenience, that a large group of people have been oppressed and marginalized simply because it is cheaper, that said ideals might even be immoral. Such suggestions often raise the ire of those who cling to the belief structure, as it calls into question their entire way of life.
Specifically, Water deals with Chuyia (Sarala), a seven-year-old widow who has had her head shaved and been sent by her family to live in a house of widows where they might not be tainted by her misfortune. There, she befriends Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the crown jewel of the house with her long hair and such beauty that she is frequently called across the river to entertain rich clients. The widows’ lives are drab. They are forbidden from wearing anything other than a white sari or eating much more than rice, interacting with normal members of society, or otherwise participating in anything beyond a drab survival. But a chance encounter brings Kalyani to the attention of Narayana (John Abraham), a progressive disciple of Ghandi who supports Indian nationalism yet questions the religion on which the country relies. Naturally, he falls in love with the beautiful Kalyani and focuses his energy on marrying her, a practice that is newly legalized but frowned upon.
Clearly, this is a raw deal for the women affected, but what’s remarkable about these women is how their faith endures despite the treatment their belief system has inflicted on them. These are women of strong devotion, most of them quick to condemn Chuyia’s question of what happens to the male widows as a form of heresy, yet a simple lack of faith would improve their lives considerably. But that’s what faith often is – a belief despite reason.
If the depiction of the treatment of widows in India is to be believed (and there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t), then you have to wonder about a society that permits such injustice. At the same time, though, it’s difficult to reconcile such a thing with a Judeo-Christian world view, as it shares little with the Hindu system. To a western audience, such treatment seems incomprehensible, but I imagine a Hindu looking at some of the tenets and laws of Christianity might find them equally appalling. It’s all a matter of context, really.
Little of this has to do with the film itself, which in terms of quality compares to Maria Full of Grace (2004), but that’s okay because Mehta’s chief concern is shining a light in a dark corner and dealing with stories and lives that are often pushed aside. As a result, Water tends to simplify the issue at hand and occasionally forces a message on the audience (especially in the film’s final act, which borders on preaching and is about fifteen minutes too long). It’s hard to fault Mehta’s tendency to push an agenda when people are resorting to violence in an attempt to silence her.
More effective than Water, the film, are the issues and topics it tends to raise, chiefly that of social injustice and the role of faith, the origins of religious tradition, and how they affect a modern world. Narayana argues that widows are treated horribly because the authors of the Holy Scriptures were cost-conscious and, as such, not all the traditions should be taken as dogma, since often they come from a time and place that had different requirements for survival. The film, set in 1938, as Ghandi is beginning his quest for independence from the British, deals with an India struggling to adapt itself to a modern world.
Western influence is forcing some traditions to die, but religion refuses to budge, because if the Holy Scriptures are truly sacred, they cannot change. For if they were to change, it would be an indication that they are wrong. But what happens when society changes so much the Scriptures (or at least the classic interpretation of them) no longer fit with a modern morality, if what was previously acceptable is now wrong? Do the Holy Scriptures change or must we change the context in which we view them? A classic interpretation cannot co-exist with a humane treatment of widows and an inhumane treatment of a human being does not exactly co-exist with the basic principles religion espouses.
Mehta’s main point, if I understand her correctly, is that while faith is a wonderfully powerful thing, sometimes a blind faith and devotion to tradition is ultimately dangerous and immoral. And in a battle between religious tradition and morality, we must choose morality, regardless of the potential consequence. In the film’s final scene, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) commits an act that is at the same time a sin and the right thing to do. But if a sin is a clearly moral action, what does that mean for the institution that decrees what is and is not a sin?
 The other two are Fire (1996), a look at loveless arranged marriages (with a lesbian subplot), and Earth (1998), which deals partly with various religious groups in India. I have not seen either film.
Starring: Lisa Ray, Sarala, John Abraham, and Seema Biswas
Written and directed by: Deepa Mehta
PG-13, 117 min, 2006, Canada/India