Water (2005)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-1 ; L – 11 ; S/N – 2; Running time: 1 hour 54 min.

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.
If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry;
and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
Exodus 22:21-24

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land.
Psalm 68:5-6

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
James 1:27

Water

This is the only film of filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s trilogy, “Fire,” “Earth,” and “Water,” that I have seen, but I hope to rectify that before the end of the year. Like her late fellow countryman Satyajit Ray, Deepa Mehta is a wonderful storyteller working in perfect tandem with cinemaphotographer Giles Nuttgens to capture the beauty of both the people and their surroundings. She is Hindu, yet her visual parable of a film places her in the company of the writers of the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures with their common concern for the plight of the powerless, and of widows in particular.

In the opening sequence of the film young Chuyia (Sarala) is asked by her father if she remembers her marriage to the man who has just died. She does not, nor does she comprehend that now as a widow she is about to be cut off forever from her family. She protests being left in the ashram of widows presided over by the old and obese Madhumati (Manorama), hereafter referred to by her nickname of Didi, but her father walks away anyway. She proves quite a hand-full, insulting Didi and running through the ashram ahead of her pursuers, crying that she wants to go home. Two of the widows befriend her, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a kind middle-aged woman, and Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the most beautiful of the group, allowed to keep her hair long (Chuyia is quickly shorn of hers) for a very sad reason. Didi’s frequent visitor at the window of the ashram is Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), a eunuch who serves as a pimp for the wealthy. What Kalyani earns for a night’s work is the major contribution to the meager income the widow’s earn from begging.

Chuyia finds relief from her grieving by her visits to the upstairs room of Kalyani. She keeps her friend’s secret, the presence of a friendly puppy named Kaalu. It is while chasing after the runaway little dog that Chuyia meets Narayan (John Abraham), a young Brahmin student, as handsome as Kalyani is beautiful, and introduces him to her friend. For a while the focus shifts to the growing romance between the Brahmin and the outcast, one that flies in the face of the social and religious beliefs of the land. Narayan takes little notice of Kalyani’s status because he is a devotee of Gandhi, as we soon learn when, returning home from his studies, the young man hangs a picture of the Mahatma on the wall of his room.

Gandhi hovers over all of the characters, and many times we hear them talk about him. To Narayan’s pleasure-loving friend, Gandhi is a threat to the Anglophile lifestyle of the Indian upper class who find employment and status in government and business and become immersed in cricket and British literature. To Didi and Gulabi also, Gandhi is a threat, one to the rigid caste system that they benefit from, with all of his talk about freedom, even for untouchables. (We see that widows are relegated to this class when an upper caste woman is upset when a widow and she collide while hurrying around a corner, and in the incident wherein Shakuntala is getting water from the river and a members of a near-by wedding party worry that her shadow might touch them.)

The two lovers face incredible obstacles to their dream of a life together—Narayan’s mother is horrified at the prospect that her son would marry someone so far beneath him; Didi is so set in the old ways, as well as benefiting from the fees that Kalyani has brought in, that she locks Kalyani in her room and orders her long hair to be shorn. Narayan stands up to his mother, and Shakuntala, when she learns from her teacher that there is now a law favoring the remarriage of widows, returns to the ashram, takes the key, and releases her friend so that she can join her lover. But this is India, not America, and this is an Indian film, so will the lovers be able to “live happily ever after”? The climax will leave viewers with a haunting feeling, and what Shakuntala does for Chuyia will leave you pondering about her future. India in 1938 is aflame with the passion for change, largely due to Gandhi and his attempt not only to revolutionize his country’s government, but its tradition-bound religion and social customs as well. The fact that radical Hindus opposed the filmmaker so vehemently that they set fire to the sets of her film, thus delaying its completion by several years (in another country at that!), shows how slowly societies change. Deepa Mehta has made a film that Gandhi, himself no fan of films, would have approved, as would, I believe Jesus and the prophets.

For reflection/Discussion Note: Toward the end there are some spoilers.

1) What is the status of women in Indian society that a widow could be so relegated to the fringe of life? Compare this with the way widows apparently were treated in the early Christian church. (For more passages than the three cited at the beginning of the review, do a word search of “widow” in both Testaments.)

2) How does Narayan see economics entwined in the social and religious teaching concerning widows, “One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.” How is this similar to the defense of slavery once made by Americans?

3) What seems to be the way that Indian widows came up with so that they did not have to live on the streets? How does an ashram give them at least a small measure of power and sanctuary?

4) How are Gandhi and his teachings perceived by various characters? How does he have a liberating effect on some? In 1941 Gandhi printed a pamphlet for the instruction of members of his National Congress that included a section on women that sought to set them on a basis of equality. A portion of it reads: “Women have been taught to regard themselves as slaves of men. It is up to Congressmen to see that they enable them to realize their full status and play their part as equals of men.” (p. 22, “Constructive Programme: It’s Meaning and Place” Navijivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad-380 014, India, 1941, reprinted May, 1981.)

5) How are Chuyia, Shakuntala, and Kalyani good for each other? Whom can you recall as being a great influence on your development? How has your understanding of the societal relationships of men and women evolved through the years? What vestiges of the old patriarchal views do you see still in our society? In the church?

6) What moments of grace do you see in the film? Shakuntala and Kalyani’s treatment of Chuyia? Chuyia’s bringing the sweet to old Auntie?

7) How do we see in the scene in which Shakuntala’s teacher tells her about a recent law that knowledge is power? What does this enable her to do?

8) Why is it that when Kalyani is in the boat with her lover that she suddenly tells him to turn back? How can our past become an obstacle preventing the fulfillment of our dreams? How does her fate show the great need to have a larger vision of ourselves and the possibilities before us?

9) What do you think of Shakuntala’s decision concerning Chuyia? How is her sending forth the girl a painful sacrifice? What do you think will be the future of the woman and the child?

10) What part does water in this film, the third of director/writer Deepa Mehta’s films named after the old basic elements (Earth, Fire, and Water), play in the lives of the people? Note that both weddings and funerals take place at the river’s edge. How does water play out in the Christian faith? Check the “Prayer Over the Water” (or its counterpart) in your denomination’s Baptismal Service, and note the many ways in which water has figured in the life and history of the Christian faith.

Water Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V-1 ; L – 11 ; S/N – 2; Running time: 1 hour 54 min.

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

You shall not afflict any widow or orphan.

If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.

Exodus 22:21-24

Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.

God gives the desolate a home to live in; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a parched land.

Psalm 68:5-6

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 1:27

This is the only film of filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s trilogy, “Fire,” “Earth,” and “Water,” that I have seen, but I hope to rectify that before the end of the year. Like her late fellow countryman Satyajit Ray, Deepa Mehta is a wonderful storyteller working in perfect tandem with cinemaphotographer Giles Nuttgens to capture the beauty of both the people and their surroundings. She is Hindu, yet her visual parable of a film places her in the company of the writers of the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures with their common concern for the plight of the powerless, and of widows in particular.

In the opening sequence of the film young Chuyia (Sarala) is asked by her father if she remembers her marriage to the man who has just died. She does not, nor does she comprehend that now as a widow she is about to be cut off forever from her family. She protests being left in the ashram of widows presided over by the old and obese Madhumati (Manorama), hereafter referred to by her nickname of Didi, but her father walks away anyway. She proves quite a hand-full, insulting Didi and running through the ashram ahead of her pursuers, crying that she wants to go home. Two of the widows befriend her, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a kind middle-aged woman, and Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the most beautiful of the group, allowed to keep her hair long (Chuyia is quickly shorn of hers) for a very sad reason. Didi’s frequent visitor at the window of the ashram is Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), a eunuch who serves as a pimp for the wealthy. What Kalyani earns for a night’s work is the major contribution to the meager income the widow’s earn from begging.

Chuyia finds relief from her grieving by her visits to the upstairs room of Kalyani. She keeps her friend’s secret, the presence of a friendly puppy named Kaalu. It is while chasing after the runaway little dog that Chuyia meets Narayan (John Abraham), a young Brahmin student, as handsome as Kalyani is beautiful, and introduces him to her friend. For a while the focus shifts to the growing romance between the Brahmin and the outcast, one that flies in the face of the social and religious beliefs of the land. Narayan takes little notice of Kalyani’s status because he is a devotee of Gandhi, as we soon learn when, returning home from his studies, the young man hangs a picture of the Mahatma on the wall of his room.

Gandhi hovers over all of the characters, and many times we hear them talk about him. To Narayan’s pleasure-loving friend, Gandhi is a threat to the Anglophile lifestyle of the Indian upper class who find employment and status in government and business and become immersed in cricket and British literature. To Didi and Gulabi also, Gandhi is a threat, one to the rigid caste system that they benefit from, with all of his talk about freedom, even for untouchables. (We see that widows are relegated to this class when an upper caste woman is upset when a widow and she collide while hurrying around a corner, and in the incident wherein Shakuntala is getting water from the river and a members of a near-by wedding party worry that her shadow might touch them.)

The two lovers face incredible obstacles to their dream of a life together—Narayan’s mother is horrified at the prospect that her son would marry someone so far beneath him; Didi is so set in the old ways, as well as benefiting from the fees that Kalyani has brought in, that she locks Kalyani in her room and orders her long hair to be shorn. Narayan stands up to his mother, and Shakuntala, when she learns from her teacher that there is now a law favoring the remarriage of widows, returns to the ashram, takes the key, and releases her friend so that she can join her lover. But this is India, not America, and this is an Indian film, so will the lovers be able to “live happily ever after”? The climax will leave viewers with a haunting feeling, and what Shakuntala does for Chuyia will leave you pondering about her future. India in 1938 is aflame with the passion for change, largely due to Gandhi and his attempt not only to revolutionize his country’s government, but its tradition-bound religion and social customs as well. The fact that radical Hindus opposed the filmmaker so vehemently that they set fire to the sets of her film, thus delaying its completion by several years (in another country at that!), shows how slowly societies change. Deepa Mehta has made a film that Gandhi, himself no fan of films, would have approved, as would, I believe Jesus and the prophets.

For reflection/Discussion Note: Toward the end there are some spoilers.

1) What is the status of women in Indian society that a widow could be so relegated to the fringe of life? Compare this with the way widows apparently were treated in the early Christian church. (For more passages than the three cited at the beginning of the review, do a word search of “widow” in both Testaments.)

2) How does Narayan see economics entwined in the social and religious teaching concerning widows, “One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.” How is this similar to the defense of slavery once made by Americans?

3) What seems to be the way that Indian widows came up with so that they did not have to live on the streets? How does an ashram give them at least a small measure of power and sanctuary?

4) How are Gandhi and his teachings perceived by various characters? How does he have a liberating effect on some? In 1941 Gandhi printed a pamphlet for the instruction of members of his National Congress that included a section on women that sought to set them on a basis of equality. A portion of it reads: “Women have been taught to regard themselves as slaves of men. It is up to Congressmen to see that they enable them to realize their full status and play their part as equals of men.” (p. 22, “Constructive Programme: It’s Meaning and Place” Navijivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad-380 014, India, 1941, reprinted May, 1981.)

5) How are Chuyia, Shakuntala, and Kalyani good for each other? Whom can you recall as being a great influence on your development? How has your understanding of the societal relationships of men and women evolved through the years? What vestiges of the old patriarchal views do you see still in our society? In the church?

6) What moments of grace do you see in the film? Shakuntala and Kalyani’s treatment of Chuyia? Chuyia’s bringing the sweet to old Auntie?

7) How do we see in the scene in which Shakuntala’s teacher tells her about a recent law that knowledge is power? What does this enable her to do?

8) Why is it that when Kalyani is in the boat with her lover that she suddenly tells him to turn back? How can our past become an obstacle preventing the fulfillment of our dreams? How does her fate show the great need to have a larger vision of ourselves and the possibilities before us?

9) What do you think of Shakuntala’s decision concerning Chuyia? How is her sending forth the girl a painful sacrifice? What do you think will be the future of the woman and the child?

10) What part does water in this film, the third of director/writer Deepa Mehta’s films named after the old basic elements (Earth, Fire, and Water), play in the lives of the people? Note that both weddings and funerals take place at the river’s edge. How does water play out in the Christian faith? Check the “Prayer Over the Water” (or its counterpart) in your denomination’s Baptismal Service, and note the many ways in which water has figured in the life and history of the Christian faith.