Sunday, May 21, 2006


Eight year old Chuyia nurtures false hopes of going home in 'Water'

Deepa Mehta's 'Water' is a brilliant film. It narrates the story of widowhood in 1930s India, and it does so in such a way that it should make all of us shameful of that part of our cultural 'heritage'. The sets and art direction are gorgeous, the cast and performances are largely impeccable, and there is genuine pathos in the setting. The small and simple moments in the film grace its impact, and it leaves you (or at least should) with a sense of somber realisation and sadness.

Widows' life in 1930s India was, as are many of our current customs, prescribed by a two thousand year old cultural code from the Manusmriti, which everyone faithfully followed and nobody ever questioned, largely because it was conducive to the male supremacy so much prevalent in society. The story starts with Chuyia, a little girl who is married by age eight, and widowed very soon. She is promptly sent to an Ashram for widows, where the ghosts of women damned by society live. The ashram looks more like a leper colony, with everyone's shaved heads, sunken faces, snow white robes, and a quiet and miserable existence which has been imposed upon them by society's so-called upper class, educated men. The innocent Chuyia soon resigns herself to her fate in the Ashram, and fortunately finds a few kind souls that sympathize with her, and who give vent to her frustrations and childlish behaviour. Among these are the quiet and resolute Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Kalyani's head suprisingly is not shaved, but her tresses hide a tragic existence; the only reason she is allowed this exception to the tradition, is because she is a prostitute who is employed by Madhumati, the fat and lazy self-appointed head of the Ashram, through the agency of a eunuch pimp Gulabi (Raghuveer Yadav). As is not surprising, her customers are rich, pompously self-righteous lawyers and merchants, who are hypocrites of the weakest and most obnoxious kind; one of these ostensibly claims that there is no problem in Brahmins having mistresses, because in this transaction, it is the woman who becomes 'pure' by sleeping with the Brahmin. This is a perfect example of the kind of wretched, hypocritical men posing as prigs and saints, who have riddled and damned history and human dignity in every age and culture.

I thought that an example of the true pathos and harrowing reality of the widows is found in the character of an old woman who has been in the ashram since the pitifully young age of eight. The only reason why she remembers her marriage clearly when those memories have been long lost to the minds of the other old women, is because she remembers the delectable sweets in the marriage menu, that she says still make her mouth water. All those sweets- big juicy rasgullas, piping hot gulab jamuns, laddoos dripping with pure ghee- still make her drool. Widows are forbidden from eating sweets. This old, bony woman's constant reminiscing of these sweets evokes a combination of amusement and heartbreaking pain that I have seldom experienced. Although her character is not a central one, this mundane existence of hers at the Ashram tells us about the wretched and pitiful lives of widows in a wholly unique way. Deepa Mehta is a very talented director, and she can bring out the dredges of human existence in the most subtle but convincing manner, including in this particular instance, the innocence of Chuyia.
One of the interesting facts about the film is that throughout the story, there is not an inkling of British presence. The history of widowhood in India has little or nothing to do with British rule as such. This makes one wonder that this could well have been a story set in the 50s or 60s, and we could have observed more or less the same picture.

The wheels of the women's existence begin to turn when a young lawyer and follower of Gandhi, Narayan (Mark Abraham), falls in love with Kalyani, and is willing to marry her inspite of her being a widow. He points out that there are laws which have been passed, which allow the remarriage of widows. The fact that everyone turns a blind eye to these laws under the pretext of purity and faith and religious integrity, strikes at the heart of our historical and current cultural existence. Perhaps the only change for the worse that has been brought about, is that now, we actually twist laws to suit our pseudoreligious, hypocritical faith. This situation is pithily summed up by another character, the preacher Kulbhushan Kharbanda, who says "We follow laws only if they are convenient to us"... In any case, this affair sets in motion a series of decisive events, that are definitive of the era, people's mentalities, and the absolutely appalling and heartbreaking plight of widows. Their condition in our country lends itself to any definition of the word 'unjust' in any dictionary whatsoever. We, like others who mistreated women in their times, are guilty of a great moral travesty, and it would do well for us to keep that in mind always. Getting young girls married and widowed when they are eight years of age, and consigning them to an existence not better than animals when they understand nothing that is going on around them, is a crime against humanity in every sense of the term. In our country, it was such an integral part of our social structure and centuries old tradition, that nobody saw it as a crime or unjust act.

Why did Hindu fundamentalists violently protest this film in our country? Without exercising the urge to simply say 'Because they are exactly that, bigoted fundamentalists', I thought to analyse the reasons that may possibly reinforce this opinion.
They ostensibly agitated because like always, they thought that the portrayals in the film insult our 'glorious culture'. Actually they do, but only because they exposes the bigotry and hypocrisy in it. It depicts women as they were treated in our country less than eighty years ago (and perhaps even now) and makes us face the reality of our divided society, the divisions within which were not apparent even to its most exalted members. That is obviously because they were the ones who created the divisions in the first place.
I was surprised that even women vehemently rallied against the film. I think that by doing this, they simply refused to accept their own pitiful existence in our history. By protesting against the film, they effectively could be seen to say that they don't believe that women were treated so badly, which flies in the face of historical records. Aren't they betraying their kind, when they themselves try to deny the reality which they existed in?
Another reason for protesting against the film, could have been the fact that the head widow runs a prostitution business, or that she uses some crass and crude language. Is that any worse than the behaviour of normal human beings? If you really want to protest against something like this, then protest against crass language in general, or against prostitution in general. Aren't widows human beings? If so, they are going to be subject to the same vagaries of human nature and human desires as are other people, and it is dishonest and hypocritical to assume that such behaviour is going to get stifled only because you choose to label them in a particular manner and then cast them into universal neglect.

The bottom line of course is that, just as in many other matters and apart from political motives, the hard liners in our country simply don't want to admit that their heroes had flaws, that their customs were hypocritical and unjust, and that they have been worshippers of an outdated culture and religious faith. No doubt that these are features of the general religious fundamentalists in the rest of the world. Since they cannot admit these things openly, they resort to moral policing, trying to justify their actions under moral righteousness, still not realising that both their actions as well as whatever they are trying to protest, both themselves provide glaring and incisive exceptions to their professed sense of current and historical cultural righteousness. They say that a cat drinks milk with its eyes closed, because by doing so, it thinks that others cannot see it. There could not be a better example of that than this.

If this is really the case, then film makers like Mehta have to continue making such films, and kudos to them for that. In today's internet age, it has become virtually impossible to stifle the freedom of expression, and it always finds it way out. No matter how many efigies are burned, fatwahs are imposed, or threat calls are made, reality will emerge at some point or the other.
We have long since talked about our 'glorious Indian culture'. It is, and always has been high time, that we talk about its ugly, outdated, and highly flawed and shameful underbelly. After all, we are all only human.

Note: Here is a sobering personal account of the banning of the film and its shooting.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

great post! :)

2:06 AM  
Blogger gawker said...

We keep talking about minority rights and neglect the fact that womankind, an entire gender, has been the greatest abused minority in history, be it in India or anywhere else. In fact, the greatest success in the repression of women is in the fact that women have been to a large extent become convinced that their repression is to the benefit of society in general. Which is why most Indian women, even though they are aware of societal contempt for their species, still believe that this is how it was meant to be in the scheme of things. That might explain why even women protested against the movie because it belittled the belittling of women.

5:39 AM  
Blogger Sumedha said...

Hirak and I had the good fortune to attend a special screening of Water, where Deepa Mehta was present. Personally, I would rank the trilogy in descending order as: Fire, Earth, Water. But Water is still a very good film, in spite of John Abraham's bungling.
I can well believe the worst about how widows earned enough to get by; the prostitution scenario in the movie was not improbable. I was shocked to find that widow houses still exist in contemporary Varanasi.
I feel ashamed about Mehta having to shoot her film in Sri Lanka. As regards freedom of expression, I was somewhat relieved to see that 'The Da Vinci Code' has not yet been banned in India...

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...

Didn't like this post much. Too disorganized and ranty.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Siddharth Rege said...


Good post, although you seemed more emotional than usual. Was not planning on seeing the film, but will do so now as and when I get the chance. I suppose you will be surprised to find that I do not think that highly of Deepa Mehta. Nor did I particularly care for the article written by the australian technician, which was dripping with condescension. I guess I just feel that Deepa Mehta is very very keen to point out all the flaws in the hindu system and in India, flaws that we are aware off.
Before I get blasted for not having any feeling for the poor oppressed women, let me say that that is not the case at all. It is just that when you have a very clean house and someone points out a cobweb in one corner, you don't mind and you clear it up. On the other hand, when your house is a mess, the pillars and floor is falling apart, and you are desperately trying to get the basics in, and then someone stands in a corner and starts pointing out one flaw after another, you do get a bit irritated.
I just feel that a lot of us urban city bred folk like to think about India as a great and mature democracy in the same breath as the US, but folks, that is simply not true. There are tons of problems and a great lack of maturity. We should compare ourselves more to the US of 1860 rather than today in terms of a maturity as a democracy. Infact forget 1860, look at US in 1960. How do you think they would have reacted if an outsider came in and made a film on the condition of blacks in the south? Much the same as the RSS and the VHP methinks.
So anyway the point is this. There is a lot wrong in India and widows in Varanasi are just one on a massive list of woes. India is trying hard and is the greatest democracy IN THE THIRD WORLD. But expecting it to react to people like Deepa Mehta with the maturity of a 225 year old First World Democracy, is maybe asking for too much. I dont know, but after making 5 films (eventually) that point out 5 gaping flaws with India, maybe Deepa Mehta can make 1 film on someone like Anouradha Bakshi. Read about Anouradha at

8:13 AM  
Blogger Sujay said...

emotional indeed! but this is an emotional issue. The film was really good. I just feel sad that this was a canadian production and not indian. I dont know how many indian directors would be brave enough to address the issues she has in 'fire' and 'water'.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sid: Thanks for the perceptive comment. You are right; it is a little galling to be reminded of one particular problem in a list of woes. But I still think it needs to be done, if not for anything else, for the enlightenment of people who don't know about it at all; I learnt quite a few things which I was not aware of. Another thing is that even though the plight of widows is one big problem in a long list of problems, I think that it is a special one, because women's emancipation is a particularly key feature of a country's progress.
And you are absolutely right about the wrong perception of India as a great democracy. It is not; it's a pretty big one for sure, it's fairly good compared to other third world nations as you said, but it's also riddled with problems as we know, as far as a good democracy knows. What bothers me are the little things that add up to the big things, which are not always on the major agenda of democratic reforms, which are slowly but surely eating into the foundation of society. For example, middle class women are not overtly badly treated, but they are informally and automatically assumed to follow a certain code of conduct that inevitably leads them to sacrifice their aspirations, quite silently.
I think Gawker says it very well, that a problem even more serious than the belittlement of women, is the belittlement of that belittlement. That means we are simply not recognising the problem.
I do agree that filmmakers like Mehta always choose contentious topics in an isolated kind of perspective. But I think that maybe it's better to point out the flaws in an overt and even pointedly ostentatious way, than not point them at all. Sometimes, we are aware of things on a subtle level, but it takes a kick to make us truly aware of those happenings. Maybe people like Mehta inevitably achieve such an effect, no matter that their original motive might be a little disingenuous and selective.
One thing on which I think you hit the mark, is your opinion that we should compare today's India to 1860s America, if at all. But I also think that in your hypothetical scenario, even if Americans would have been offended and had protested if an outsider had made a film about the plight of African Americans, I am sure they probably and largely would not have burned cinema theaters, efigies of the filmmakers, cinema posters, or taken to the streets and virtually shut down a city. Of course, we can say that that could be because of the superior law and order in the US, so this kind of is an open question. But it leaves me wondering...
I checked out the site on Anuradha Bakshi; have to say she is a resolute woman who deserves to be known to a larger audience. Thanks for the link.
As Sujay says, the one thing I think we have to admit about Mehta is that she has the nerve to take on topics which other filmmakers would surely hesitate tackling.
I thought 'Fire' was a very wothy attempt in general; I think the plight of gay people in India is quite atrocious, with most people still not recognising that it's a biological preference and phenomenon, and that nobody does it for the 'style'.

As for the emotional nature of the post, even I noticed it...much later. So even though I believe in everything I said, maybe next time, I should let a day pass before I post!

1:07 PM  

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