Deepa Mehta’s Water


Water, a film directed by Deepha Mehta, executive producer David Hamilton

Jenny Haines

“Deepa Mehta’s Water is a magnificent film….unforgettably touching the heart.” — Salman Rushdie.

Water opened at the Toronto Film Festival in July 2005, much to the delight of its director, Deepa Mehta. The film is a timely reminder that although feminism may have made some strides in the West,  in the developing world a lot is still to be done.

The director, Deepa Mehta, also made Fire, a movie about  lesbian love between two Hindu women. That film caused a storm in Indian life for daring to address the taboo of homosexual love, and Hindu fundamentalists attacked the cinema in which it was showing.

Water also provoked violent protests from Hindu fundamentalists during the five years in which it was being made. A rampaging mob of 2000 Hindu fundamentalists burned down the set for, forcing Mehta to move the project to Sri Lanka.

Water is set in India in 1938. The world is changing. Gandhi is campaigning for independence from the British, but in a small rural town, the traditions set down in the practice of Hindu religion over 2000 years ago are being observed, strictly, despite the fact that sacred Hindu texts actually offer options for these women.

Women whose husbands die are sent to ashrams to live the rest of their lives in “purity”. The absurdity of this requirement of the practice is thrust at the viewer by the journey of an eight-year-old widow, Chuyia, who is taken to an ashram by her father after her husband in a family arranged marriage dies. He is a husband that Chuyia never knew.

Chuyia is the rebel who provides the voice for Mehta’s broadside against these requirements of the Hindu religion in conservative Indian life. Gandhi is presented as a voice for the revolution as well as a potential liberator from the British. He preaches liberation for the widows.

The ashram means a life of misery for the widows. They are treated in all ways as second class citizens. But there is a deeper and nastier aspect to their way of life. Their life of purity is a lie. The ashram is used by the Brahmin men as a brothel, and it is the earnings of the young women of the ashram as prostitutes that sustains the ashram running financially.

The contradictions of Indian life are presented baldly, and so is the corrupting influence of the British through the behaviour of Brahmin men and the troubled consciences of their sons.

The solid story line of the film builds progressively to a climax involving the love between a young law graduate who is a follower of Gandhi, and one of the most beautiful of the widows in the ashram. The climax is piercing and tragic, its aftermath sordid.

We are advised throughout the film of the doings of Gandhi by the ashram gossip, who is also the pimp for the Brahmin men. Gandhi is released from jail by the British and travels across India by train, stopping for 10 minutes at this small town. He tells the audience, which quickly gathers, “when I was young I believed that god was truth. Now I believe that truth is god.”

Gandhi’s visit brings salvation for Chuyia. The film ends with the stark message that even today there are thousands of women in India still living as widows in ashrams.

In interviews at the time of the film’s release Deepa Mehta refuted allegations that she set herself against the fundamentals of Indian Hindu life.

Water is a universal criticism of fundamentalist religion of all types, not only Hinduism. While Hinduism, as portrayed in the film, is obviously deeply spiritual and provides form and meaning for the characters, the practice is also a method of social control, for maintaining the status quo and convenient norms.


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