, which examines the second-class status of women in traditional Hindu society, concludes director Mehta’s “elemental trilogy” (the other two films in the series are Fire
). Although the story is set in colonial India of 1938 and coincides with Gandhi’s rise to power, the film paints a picture of religious fundamentalism that remains intrinsically unchanged despite secular social advances that have occurred during the intervening decades. Only three options exist for a widow in traditional Hindu society: She can burn her body along with her husband’s on his funeral pyre, she can marry her husband’s brother if he is willing, or she can move into a group ashram for widows where the women live in penance and poverty. A note at the end of the film tells us that conditions have changed little for many women in present-day India. We are ushered into the widows’ ashram of Water
through the experiences of 8-year-old Chuyia (Sarala), who, at the start of the film, is awakened by her father who asks, “Do you remember getting married?” The question is as disturbingly irrelevant as the child’s answer, for now she is a widow, and her meager past will shape her entire future. Her father takes Chuyia to a widows’ home and leaves her there – confused, distraught, yet nevertheless curious and bursting with life. For the longest time, Chuyia is convinced her parents will eventually come to retrieve her from this strange place, but while she waits she explores her environs and gets to know the women living there. The widows all have shorn heads and wear only white, unstyled saris, which make their station in life immediately evident to all. Only one woman, a beauty named Kalyani (Ray), has long hair, but this, too, is her sad fate rather than a kindly dispensation. She is the one woman appointed by the domineering “house mother” to prostitute herself to the local gentry and thereby earn money to keep their ashram functioning. (She is accompanied on her nightly visits by a transvestite eunuch.) Kalyani and Chuyia form an instant friendship and become the main sources of unruliness in the home. Soon Kalyani meets future lawyer Narayana (Abraham), who is a follower of Gandhi and wants to start a new life with Kalynai, away from their scandalized family and community members. Whether or not it’s really possible for them to escape the rigid religious demands of their society becomes the film’s central question. Meanwhile, Mehta and her cameraman, Giles Nuttgens, capture the area’s rich interplay of light and color, land and water, and riches and poverty. The story they tell is beautiful yet sad, a tale drenched in centuries of stagnant, holy water that cleanses the body but putrefies the soul.