Recently I had the opportunity to watch Deepa Mehtaâ€™s film, â€œWaterâ€on DVD . Most of you may have already seen this movie as well as its predecessors, â€œFireâ€ and â€œEarthâ€. â€œWaterâ€ is the third segment of Deepaâ€™s elemental trilogy. I am not a film critic by any measure. However, the reason for me to write about this film is because it deals with an issue which has always been a controversial and sensitive one in our culture and religion. For the benefit of those of you who have not seen the film, â€œWaterâ€ deals about the plight of the Hindu widows (during 1930s) who were banished from the society to live a secluded life in the â€œBidhava Ashramsâ€ or Widow Homes of Varanasi. These widows, ranging from eight years to eighty years of age, live a life deprived of all pleasures and wait earnestly to die in the sacred ghats of Kashi, an extremely fortunate fate that guarantees a spot in the heaven. Although some of them, like Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) earn not for the heavens but rather to be born again as a man. Some, like Kalyani (Lisa Ray) do not even wait; rather they sacrifice themselves to the holy waters of to escape from their exile.
Many will argue that this story is not relevant anymore. Hindu widows, these days, do not have to lead such a deprived life. They no longer have to wear whites, shave their heads, and eat vegetarian and fast on every eleventh lunar day. But is it true? Granted that, in the urban middle class and upper middle class families, widows have a relatively better life now. But the huge majority still has to succumb to the societal pressures and pick up the white garb. Widow homes (or Bidhava Ashrams) still exist in , and the lives of their residents are not that different from those shown in the film. Even the widows of the urban elites have to tolerate the â€œdifferentâ€ attitude thrown towards them by the more fortunate members of their â€œHinduâ€ society. The film asks some pertinent questions that are relevant even today. These days a young widow may not have to live her life as an ascetic in an Ashram, but she is no longer welcome in a manâ€™s life either, as his lawful wedded wife. She still has to tolerate the greedy eyes of men who consider them as easily available. And if any one tries to raise her voice in protest, she has to face the wrath of the Hindu fundamentalists as did Deepa Mehta herself.
The story of the film happens in the background of the holy city of Benaras, a city that has appeared several times in films of stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Raghu Rai and others. Unfortunately, Deepa Mehta did not have the luxury of capturing this picturesque city on her film. Rather, she had to be content with a poor imitation constructed in Sri Lanka. Deepa Mehta was not allowed to shoot her film in the holy city. The right wing Hindu extremists destroyed her sets and threatened her and her crew. She was forced to stop filming and return to her home in Canada. But I guess, this incident only strengthened her resolve. After two years she went back to the sub-continent, to Sri Lanka, to make her film with an entirely new cast.
Itâ€™s not that the film is perfect and free of all short comings. The script lacked the depth that a film dealing with such an issue deserves. Lisa Ray was miscast in the role of Kalyani. Despite her best efforts she could not free herself of her western accent and sophistication. But most of the other cast members did proper justice to their roles. Special mention needs to be made for Sarala, who performed the role of the child widow Chhuiya, and of course Seema Biswas who carried the film to a great extent. John Abrahamâ€™s character (Narayan) felt a little under developed â€“ so were most of the male characters in a primarily female dominated movie. Raghuvir Yadav (as the eunuch Gulabi) did an excellent job as usual.
The most exquisite feature of this film is its cinematography (Giles Nuttgens). The framing, color schemes and compositions were breath taking at times. I wonder what impact the film would have made if it could have been shot at its original locale,
The film has surfaced once again a shame of our society and religion, a shame that had tormented people like Raja Rammohan Roy and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, but it still manages to sink and hide itself in the depths of our conscience. Deepa Mehta has made another attempt to bring it up and challenged us to deal with it. I deeply thank her for her heroic efforts.