According to the Laws of Manu (in the Sacred Hindu texts), “A widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste.” However, as Deepa Mehta’s Water makes clear, the definition of “chaste” depends on who needs what from whom. Set in 1938 India (though shot in Sri Lanka, following on-set riots by Hindu fundamentalists objecting to the project in 2000), Water considers the complicated, often excruciating impositions on women’s lives at a time when Mahatma Gandhi is exposing the oppressions of colonial powers.
Eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) first appears at the moment her father tells her she’s been widowed. Though she hardly even remembers being married, she is suddenly cast into an awful lifelong limbo, sent to live in an ashram with 14 other widows, all disdained by “respectable” citizens. The girl doesn’t understand the change, of course, or even the concept of “forever,” and so she hopes her parents will soon retrieve her. She’s instructed that her life is over, that “A wife is part of her husband while he is alive, and when husbands die, god help them.”
Bewildered by the widows’ perpetual mourning, Chuyia bounces and fights, resisting the expectation that she join in the communal depression. Her head shaved at her husband’s funeral, Chuyia looks like the other widows save for her startling youthfulness. But she can’t imagine herself one of them, resisting as she can; she bites, observes another widow, “like a little bitch,” then scurries away, running nowhere. Until she runs into Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, star of the remarkable Bandit Queen), who rubs turmeric paste into her head to cool it. “You saved me,” smiles Chuyia, “like the goddess Durga,” that is, a warrior goddess, fiercely independent and courageous.
But Shakuntala doesn’t see herself as a warrior, or even an independent thinker. Rather, she puts her quiet energy into comprehending the trials imposed on the people she has come to care about, her fellow widows. Working for a local Hindu priest Sadananda (Khulbushan Kharbanda), she consults him concerning articles of faith and instructions for behavior. How do the dire restrictions on a widow’s life comport with the privileges assumed by men, or members of the Brahmin caste? How is a station in life assigned? And why is it that men, as the priest informs her, can decide whether or not to work within a new law or ignore it, depending on what they (the men) deem convenient or beneficial?
The case they’re discussing is a new law allowing widows to marry, which Sadananda says has not been acted on locally even though it’s been passed nationally. The fact that the widows don’t even know about the law has to do with their seclusion as well as their illiteracy, but Shakuntala is especially appalled by the news, because one of the widows living in their ashram has in fact met a man who wants to marry her.
The widow is Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who alone wears long hair so that she can be prostituted to wealthy Brahmins across the river. When Chuyia first spots her — in the doorway of the attic apartment where she lives apart from the others, so they might retain their “purity,” the child is so struck by her light-eyed beauty that she calls her an “angel.” Indeed, Kalyani is special in this hierarchy of widows: she keeps an illicit puppy in her room and invites Chuyia to play with her. They bathe in the Ganges, scamper in the rain, and gaze out on the shimmery river surface: water, in other words, grants them a certain, if brief, sense of freedom and connectedness.
Kalyani doesn’t work by choice, but in order to support the widows’ household (their only other source of income is begging, an activity that appalls Chuyia so much that she runs from it). More specifically, Kalyani is ordered to work by the group’s apparently self-appointed leader, the self-satisfied, dope-smoking Madhumati (Manorama). (It’s worth noting that the hierarchy inside the ashram mimics the unfairness outside, but then why would the women who have been so abused all their lives imagine any other way?) As Madhumati is in charge, and can’t leave the premises without attracting attention, she’s aided in the business by another outsider, the eunuch Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), who serves as drug supplier and pimp.
Much as Kalyani abhors her work, she understands it as a duty, one she endures without question or choice. Her sense of herself changes, however, when she accidentally meets Narayan (John Abraham), a young lawyer who follows the anti-colonialist teachings of Gandhi, and especially envisions a new social system without castes and with freedoms for all citizens. He’s a little too good to be true, and his romance with Kalyani is exceptionally movie-ish, established in lingering glances and passed notes, rapturous embraces and perfect backlighting.
But their forbidden love, so clichéd and grand, is less significant in itself than it is a means to expand on Chuyia’s story, and in turn, Shakuntala’s. For if the child is unable to comprehend the tragedy of her own abandonment, she does come to understand the pain of her fellow widows, including the desperate desire for sweets recited daily by “Auntie” Patiraji (Vidula Javalgekar), who’s been a widow so long she can only remember when she was a child bride and ate sweets at her wedding — it is her last lovely memory.
Chuyia buys a sweet for the old woman, whose ecstasy is more visceral and moving than any emotion displayed by the conventional young lovers. And as Chuyia sees this simple pleasure loom so crucially for Auntie, the girl’s face shows that she comes of age in a way at once wrenching and inspiring, rendered in details of framing and glimpsing. A similar, though prolonged moment of looking is granted Shakuntala near film’s end. Like Chuyia’s, her face is wide and sad and knowing. It is everything.