Set in 1938, Water by Deepa Mehta is a brutal portrayal of the realities of that time, with the frame of reference being the plight of widows in India. The story begins with a newly-widowed 7 year old girl called Chuhiya, who is left at a ‘widhwa-ashram’ (literally meaning, widow-home) to stay with other widows, facing social ostracization. Confused and scared, Chuhiya is unable to bring herself to accept this change in her life. That she has a hot temper, and a ever questioning mind does not help either.
The entire film delves deeper into the prevalent social issues at that time, the prevalent power structure where there was the supremacy of the male over the female, and the other big power structure in India- casteism, existing at the same time. Being Indian has always been considered to be traditional, to be respectful of the culture that has been passed down through generations,ever since Manu was born. This film showcases the crossroads that India as a country was facing, going from British rule towards Independence. At the same time, the wave of Indian reformers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who were challenging the regressive customs of Indian society, was getting stronger.
Being Indian has also meant being respectful of power structures in the society. While some of them explicit, some of them have been drilled into us with such dexterity that we no longer acknowledge their existence or feel them. Water looks at the trauma a widow in those times. While Chuhiya is more or less the change agent in the film, her questions and acts triggering actions both desirable and undesirable. She is a representation of the generation trying to break free from the shackles of ancient India. On the other hand, Shakuntala, who fills in the gap that Chuhiya’s mother would have done otherwise, represents a generation resigned to the customs and functioning of society. A generation who was born in the British Rule, had to keep up with economic developments and changes, while sticking to their ‘Indian’ philosophy of life, never challenging the status quo.
It is a beautiful portrayal of a society so bound by its scriptures, its ancient texts that it is losing the ability to progress with the times, affording upliftment and success of only those classes of society that were doing well anyways. The representation of sexuality is also very interesting. A mirror to a society which at that time, thought of women as second rate citizens, whose lives were bound to the men in their lives. First the father, whose house she would live and grow in, and then her husband, who would give her his name and when he would die, her identity was more or less lost in the process. A woman, who was a widow, was no more than a burden to her husband’s family, one more mouth to feed. People of the upper classes exploited widows for sex, but at the same time, the emotions of a widow meant nothing – her sexual desires were supposed to be non-existent, her desires of getting appreciated, or appreciating the good things in life like fine food, clothes and jewelry were also considered appalling and she was denied all this.
The soon-to-be lawyer, Narayana who eventually turns out to be a savior for Chuhiya and in a way, Shakuntala, represents the intellectual class of the society at that time and in a sense, even now. As the Indian society still struggles to address gender issues and mistreatment of widows, Water remains a deeply relevant film.