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.