My first reaction to the 2005 Indian movie “Water” was fairly positive. Set in 1938, it told the story of widows who had been forced by Hindu tradition to live a life of self-abnegation, including the child bride Chuyia (Sarala), who at the start of the film is informed by her father that her husband has died. Her reply: I did not know that I was married.
After her father abandons Chuyia to a widow’s ashram on the banks of the Ganges in the city of Varanasi, she rebels against the strictures and seeks solace in the limited human pleasures there, including a puppy kept in secret by Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful widow in her 20s, who begins to act as an older sister to her. Eventually, another widow named Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), becomes a surrogate mother. These three protagonists are allied against Madhumati (Manorma), the corpulent and intimidating woman who runs the ashram. She sends the women out each day to beg in the streets and is not above sending out Kalyani as a whore to wealthy clients turned up by the eunuch pimp Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav).
One day Kalyani encounters the handsome young Brahman law student Narayan (John Abraham) on the street, who almost immediately falls in love with her. The plot is driven forward by her ultimately tragic inability to break free of the ashram’s bonds and Chuyia’s efforts to enjoy a normal childhood despite all odds. The audience cannot help cheering for these women.
Salvation for Chuyia comes in the form of a kind of deus ex machina, as Gandhi makes a train stop in Varanasi shortly after being released from a British jail. Narayan, an avid Gandhi supporter, boards the train as it is leaving the station with the intention of becoming a full-time activist. At the very last minute, Shakuntala shows up with Chuyia and urges Narayan to rescue the child. Her salvation and India’s salvation appear to rest on Gandhi’s bony shoulders.
The Western audience, the natural target demographic for this film, would no doubt identify with the words that Gandhi speaks to the crowd in the train station. “When I was young, I believed that God was the Truth. Now I believe that Truth is God.” After watching innocent women enduring terrible suffering for the better part of two hours at the hands of religious fundamentalists, your natural inclination is to blame everything on Hindu backwardness.
For a brief moment in the film, we get an idea that the religious justification–based on ancient Vedic texts–might simply be an excuse for keeping the late husband’s property out of the hands of the widows. In Narayan’s view, it is all about “One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.”
This kind of economic interpretation is also alluded to in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous (infamous in the eyes of the anti-postmodernists) essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Preceded by a ponderous and almost incomprehensible exegesis on the writings of Guattari and Foucault, it eventually settles on relatively firm ground with an examination of sati, or widow self-immolation. Banned by the British, it was the quintessential symbol of Hindu savagery that a benign occupying force would eradicate. Spivak tries to mediate between the racism of the British and possible motivations for suicide that have nothing to do with such stereotypes. She makes a valiant effort in my opinion but is not entirely successful. The greatest value of her essay is the inclusion of scholarly material such as the following:
In certain periods and areas this exceptional rule became the general rule in a class-specific way. Ashis Nandy relates its marked prevalence in eighteenth- and early nineteenth century Bengal to factors ranging from population control to communal misogyny. Certainly its prevalence there in the previous centuries was because in Bengal, unlike elsewhere in India, widows could inherit property. Thus, what the British see as poor victimized women going to the slaughter is in fact an ideological battleground. As P.V. Kane, the great historian of the Dharmasastra, has correctly observed: “In Bengal, [the fact that] the widow of a sonless member even in a joint Hindu family is entitled to practically the same rights over joint family property which her deceased husband would have had…must have frequently induced the surviving members to get rid of the widow by appealing at a most distressing hour to her devotion and love for her husband.
Unfortunately, there is no attempt to provide any such historical context in “Water”. The audience is thrown into the middle of a terrible situation, the cause of which is unknown. If Gandhi is intended to be the widow’s salvation, we are not exactly sure why. Has he taken a stand against such mistreatment? If so, it is not made obvious.
Whatever criticisms one might have of Deepa Mehta, one could certainly rally around her rights as a film-maker which were abrogated by the ultraright BJP party in 2000 that forced her to film in Sri Lanka.
Scotland on Sunday, March 5, 2000, Sunday
PROTESTS PUT END TO RADICAL FILM
By Natasha Mann In Delhi
DEEPA Mehta, the non-resident Indian movie director, flew back to her home in Toronto this week after aborting the filming of Water, her controversial new script.
The shoot was plagued by attacks and demonstrations by Hindu fundamentalists. In her wake she left a debate about the question of free expression and a perceived increase in right-wing intolerance in a supposedly secular country.
Mehta is now $ 800,000 out of pocket – half her budget -and is faced with the prospect of having to decide when and where she will be able to resume her project.
In an interview with Scotland on Sunday she expressed anger and bewilderment over the series of events that have forced her back to Canada.
“Either this is a democracy or it is not,” said Mehta. “It is cultural policing. What is happening is pre-censorship. It is not as if the film has been made and now there is a hue and cry. Who is actually ruling the country is what scares me.”
In India, Mehta is a notorious figure known for her previous internationally acclaimed film, Fire, which explored a lesbian relationship between two middle class Indian women. When the film was released here it received a violent response as opponents vented their outrage.
Water is the third of a trilogy that includes Fire and another film, Earth. The script, about a group of Hindu widows, is set in the 1930s and follows the women’s forced descent into prostitution.
Originally it had been passed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government before the crew and cast set out to film in the holy city of Varanasi. But before they could get to work Hindu fundamentalists – known collectively as the Sangh Parivar -with links to the BJP claimed to have a copy of the script and declared it denigrated Hindu culture and religion. Then began a series of protests and filming was eventually stopped by the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh state government .
“It is very dismaying,” said Mehta. “Because what does it say on a much larger scale? At some point it stops being about Water. Now it is about the law being used against you and cultural fundamentalism.
That being said, one cannot help but feel that there are stronger voices that can be heard on behalf of India’s subaltern classes. One wonders if Deepa Mehta has a bit too much in common with the Iranian expatriate feminist left that is all too anxious to blame their country’s woes on a failure to incorporate Western “democratic” ideals. I am also particularly bothered by her decision to work with George Lucas on a TV spin-off of the Indiana Jones series. If there is anything that defines mind-numbing racist Orientalism, it is this kind of work.
“Muse India,” an online literary journal has a very good review by Ketu Katrak of “Water” and Sharada Ramanathan’s “Sringaram: The Dance of Love,” another film that deals with the exploitation of women, in this case devadasis or temple dancers. She writes:
Leaving the auditorium after seeing Water, I was uncomfortable and angry to hear the usual and predictable responses from mainstream Americans, such as “These poor Indian women. Thank God we live in America.” The fact that India is part of the vast South Asian sub-continent with many variations of social custom, religious practice, and cultural traditions remains invisible. Not that one film has to show all the complexities of modern Indian society, but unfortunately there are very few South Asian representations in mainstream cinema. Hence, the few that “make it” to commercial distribution carry a certain burden of representation that with all its artistic freedom, demands a level of integrity and responsibility. And when the filmmakers are historically bound in terms of portraying the 1920s and 30s, that nearly 100-year old ambience is projected as part of the 2006 viewers’ collective unconscious. The troubling binary of tradition vs. modernity raises its ugly head again. Let us all become “modern” since “tradition “ is so backward. Neither tradition nor modernity are monoliths and need to be analyzed and evaluated in their specific historic time and location. Hence, one needs to question what the appeal of historical reconstruction is, especially when such a reconstruction portrays women as victims, controlled by religion and trapped in patriarchally controlled traditions. These representations unfortunately come across as timeless and ahistorical and leave the audience with a sense of hopelessness about the injustice that these women face.
Both filmmakers aim to move beyond merely showing women’s oppression as rooted in tradition. However, even the strong resistance of women to patriarchal domination comes across as sentimental and romanticized at best, and unconvincing and self-destructive at worst. Although women’s agency is certainly crucial in challenging unfair social customs such as the treatment of widows, two significant questions remain: is it enough to resist, whatever the outcome? And why is resistance glorified even when the outcome is destructive, or self-destructive for the women? It is as important to think about the resulting social reality for women especially when they take on traditions sanctioned by the weight of religious authority. I consider it highly problematic when the outcome of resistance is self-destruction—suicide or other forms of marginalization and forms of exile from their communities—as is often the result of women speaking up or acting against social norms.
If only Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak could write so clearly!