Vol 6, Num 20 :: 2007.11.02 — 2007.11.16
To a certain variety of Western Christian, Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film Water should seem familiar, a parable of his or her own experience. The most recent in her trilogy, which also includes Earth (1996) and Fire (1998), Water explores the difficulty of discerning 2,000 years of religious history to distinguish between capital-T Truth and the cultural conveniences of the powerful that have been forcefully disguised as religious truth.
Set in 1938 in the city of Varanasi while India is still under British control, the story follows seven-year-old Chuyia who is swept up in Hindu rituals for widows when her husband dies. She’s relegated to an urban ashram where widows do penance for the bad karma that killed their husbands and where she witnesses the ways in which the women are shunned by general society, while at the same time living out their caste ranks within the ashram. From Kalayani, the young widow who is forced into prostitution to support the ashram, Chuyia learns about the power of love. From the widow Shakuntala, she learns about the tension between being devout and doing what’s right. And from Narayan, a recent convert to the way of Gandhi, Chuyia, Kalyani and others learn the validity of a new way of life that defies religious norms, while drawing on the best of tradition. Throughout these interwoven stories, water serves as a symbol of purity, life, hospitality and cleansing, as well as division and death.
This is a standard Deepa Mehta film in the sense that the viewer is left with a glimpse of hope, but only after passing through despair. And perhaps the film’s story ended up being a kind of metaphor for Mehta’s experiences in making the film: location permits got ‘conveniently’ tied up in bureaucracy (a form of protest against the controversial Fire) and the Varanasi sets were stormed and burned. The crew eventually filmed in Sri Lanka instead of India with a new cast, a disguised title and a release date delayed from the original by four years. The conservative Hindu establishment did not want the world to see what Mehta had to offer. In that sense, Christians who find themselves at the margins of mainline thought may find evidence of a kindred spirit in Water, a film by a sensitive director who loves her ethnic and religious heritage too much to watch it self-destruct.