Deepa Mehta's film examines the plight of a group of widows forced into poverty at a temple in the holy city of Varanasi. It focuses on a relationship between one of the widows, who wants to escape the social restrictions imposed on widows, and a man who is from the highest caste and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi.

1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2019 - 11:34 AM
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It has taken a long time to get here, but finally the third instalment of Deepa Mehta's her trilogy about India, Water, has been released in to Australia. As with the first two films in the cycle, Fire (1996) and Earth (1998), Water also raised the ire of conservative, fundamentalist religious groups in India, decrying Mehta's subversive ideas about women in Indian culture (apparently 'there are no lesbians in India', the reason they gave for rioting against the release of Fire, Mehta's realistic exploration into that taboo subculture). Water also suffered a similar fate during the beginning of production in 2000. An angry mob of protesters shut down the film and it wasn't until 2004 that Mehta was able to resurrect it.

Water is set in an 'unnamed Holy City' by the river Ganges during the time of Mahatma Ghandi (1938). Things are progressing politically in India, with independence and progress harnessing the hearts and minds of a whole generation of young men and women, but culturally at that time women are still repressed, with widows deemed as outcasts in traditional Hindu society. We witness child-bride Chuyia (amazing young actress Sarala) delivered to a crumbling ashram by her ashamed family after the death of her adult husband. She is told that it is there she must spend the rest of her days. But at just nine years-old cheeky Chuyia doesn't quite understand her fate. She befriends adult widows Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young woman pimped out by the queen of the House, Madhumati (Manorama), while her other ally Shakuntala, (Seema Biswas), is a devout Hindu torn between her fate and her faith.

It sounds like heavy-going, but Water slips easily between sorrow and sadness into happiness and ecstasy, punctuated by some luscious, romantic Bollywood-style song-and-dance numbers between actors Ray and John Abraham, whose characters fall into a taboo love affair. Their union offers hope for a new India as does Chuyia's feisty character and willingness to question the fate she is handed. The water motif flows beautifully throughout; every frame is steeped in a tear, a raindrop, a river or glistening sweat. Water is a symbol of sadness as it the means by which we cleanse ourselves, spiritually and physically. This amounts to a film experience as ethereal as it is grounded, reminding us of our origins and the world of which we are a part.

While Water is an unashamed political broadside aimed at religious oppression, it is not heavy-handed. It is so much more, a story of self-sacrifice, life and love.

Water

Thursday 14 November, 7:30PM on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)

M
India, 2005
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: Hindi
Director: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Rinsly Weerarathne, Buddhi Wickrama, Lisa Ray, Rishma Malik
What's it about?
Deepa Mehta's film examines the plight of a group of widows forced into poverty at a temple in the holy city of Varanasi. It focuses on a relationship between one of the widows, who wants to escape the social restrictions imposed on widows, and a man who is from the highest caste and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi.