In India in 1938, we learn, a woman who outlived her husband had three options. She could a) burn with her dead husband, b) live a life of self-denial, or c) marry her husband’s younger brother. Anything else is a violation of Hindu teachings — as Water‘s opening title card refers to them, the “Hindu laws of widowhood.” If that sounds brutal, consider that in a culture of arranged marriages, most at a very young age, widowhood could come early: in the case of Deepa Mehta’s tragic heroine, as early as nine or ten years old.
It’s a startling thought, and Mehta lets it sink in over the first two acts of Water, which are powerful in a quiet way, and instructive without being pedantic. One aspect of the situation will register — the widows have to wear white, we see, and live apart from the rest of the community in an Ashram — and we think, well, that’s terrible, but then the film shows us another — “Watch where you’re going! Widows shouldn’t be running around like unmarried girls! You’ve polluted me. I will have to bathe again” — and we can only blink in surprise.
Chuyia, the protagonist, is one of those impossibly scrappy movie children with a supernatural talent for taking everything in stride, but she seems more thoughtful, too, and her quiet makes her interesting. I liked the way the other women in the Ashram begin to treat her like a child but quickly discover that they have to deal with her on equal terms. She makes some friends, most notably a beautiful widow who lives on the upper floor, keeps a dog, and refuses to cut her hair, and an enemy in the Ashram’s reigning crank who is almost certainly prostituting out its members to pay for upkeep.
The movie is compelling in the way it gradually opens up, beginning as the story of a little girl’s plight, wedging in some supporting characters, expanding to add some cultural perspective, and finally encompassing no less than the future of India and its people. Ultimately Mehta gives up developing her themes organically and just has one of her characters tell us what we’re supposed to glean, but I was almost glad, since it gave the film the opportunity to set its riveting, more plot-heavy third act in motion.
Mehta’s politics aren’t quite as straightforward as one might expect. Not for her the simpleminded scorn of the old in favor of the “progressive.” It is no coincidence that the one character who is expressly labeled a “liberal thinker” is indirectly but undeniably responsible for the sad downfall of a main character. There are few villains here, and even the people who hold most strongly to their sometimes cruel beliefs have a certain instinctive sympathy for those who suffer.
It doesn’t seem quite right, then, that the first time Mehta tried to film Water — which concludes a trilogy that began with Earth and Fire — the set was stormed and destroyed by Hindu extremists, forcing the filmmaker to try again in Sri Lanka. Of course, no one deserves that kind of treatment, but it seems particularly unjust when directed against this quiet, understanding, introspective movie. Still, like most things these days, it stands ready to be distorted and misunderstood.