Harvard Law (Movie) Review: Water


“Water” was one of the movies reviewed by Yvonne Tew for the course Law, Morality and Psychology: An Exploration Through Film. Taught by Professor Alan Stone, the class studies films as living texts, inquiring into the underlying strands of psychology and morality contained in several critically acclaimed films.

“Good traditions should not die out.” Strikingly, it is Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young widow who is herself forced by tradition to live in seclusion with other widows in an ashram, who makes this statement to her lover Narayan (John Abraham), a young student inflamed by Gandhi’s message of liberation, when he asserts that times are changing and that India’s century-old traditions will soon be swept aside. Narayan’s response underscores a fundamental question in Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film, Water: “But who should decide what is good and what is not?” The juxtaposition of traditions and faith with modernity and liberation; the struggle between century-old beliefs and revolutionary ideas; and the vestiges of Anglo-Western colonization – Water gives faces to all these themes in a way that evocatively manages to capture the both the vibrant color and the dark abscesses of an emerging India trying to find its voice.

Water is itself used as a main strand that flows through the film, marking significant events and wrapping itself around the lives of the characters. The Ganges is simultaneously a symbol of purity and prostitution, faith and despair, life and death, beginning and end. But, water can also pollute, and some of the movie’s most powerful moments are when it provides us with an insight into the depravity that the human soul is capable of. Ultimately, Water is about humanity at its best and its ugliest. Like its namesake, it provides us with a reflection of ourselves – and, as it is with great movies, the accuracy of the insights both inspire and nauseate us in turn.

From its lush opening scene focusing on the lotuses on the tranquil waters of the Ganges to the shots of the holy city’s street life in all it vibrant color, the cinematography is exquisite. Kalyani and Narayan’s story is not merely a romantic strand in the film: it is an injection of young life into the movie, essential for the telling of the juxtaposition between the old and the new. This stirring of the new amidst the old is ever present throughout Water: the shaved heads ofthe widows in the sparse ashram are contrasted with rumors of Gandhi.

Traditions, and an almost blind faith, appear to be in stark contrast to Gandhi’s message of liberation. But, there is at least one commonality between the two apparent polars: both are essentially about self-liberalization; each represent different paths toward the most coveted of human goals: liberty. Shakuntala’s efforts (Seema Biswas) to reach self-actualization through deep, and humble, religious faith are, ultimately, about reaching a state of liberty for, and from, the self. Gandhi’s broader vision is also one of liberty: it is a vision of an India liberated from the British, where untouchables and widows are also “children of God”. However misguided the westerners in us may view the traditions that forces a widow to choose one of three options – burn with her husband, marry her husband’s younger brother, or spend the rest of her life in a widow’s ashram – it underlines the universal desire for freedom. Ironically, the traditions that restrict the liberty of the most vulnerable and unfortunate are based on a faith that has as its core a desire to achieve liberty for the self through self-actualization.

True faith, without justice and love as its foundations, however, is difficult to sustain. The lives of widows in the ashrams are that of the living dead. There is a painful cruelty in the social stigma inflicted on widows who are treated as less than human and in the stark gender inequality present in the society (“Where are all the men widows?” Chuyia asks to a horrified group of women widows). The ashram becomes a breeding ground for polluted human emotions: greed, exploitation, and manipulation. Kalyani’s radiant beauty is all the more tragic when we see her services being sold by the domineering Mudhumati to rich Brahmins across the river.

When we think of horrific moments in human history, we think of the Third Reich, Hitler and Mussolini, Rwanda; but, for centuries, and even now, humankind has steadfastly inflicted suffering in less prominent ways on those most vulnerable in society: the slaves, the poor, the powerless, the widows, and the children. Water is a sobering reminder of the depths of moral depravity that humankind is capable of. We recoil in horror at the scene of eight-year-old Chuyia’s devastation precisely because there is something so innately wrong, so inherently deplorable, about the robbing of a child’s innocence; it is a devastation magnified by being incurred for no other reason than crass greed (Madhumati’s) and by being sanctioned by centuries of hierarchical superiority that allows the upper class to say that any woman (or, in this case, child) that a Brahmin sleeps with is blessed.

Mehta shows us humanity at its ugliest; but, Water also exhibits some of humanity’s best moments: it is reminder that humanity is also capable of beautiful and true expressions of selflessness and love. In the midst of the sordid surroundings, there are moments of individuals reaching out and giving: Chuyia brings back a sweet for the aged Auntie who craves for them in the emptiness of her life and Kalyani gives up her own savings to pay for Auntie’s cremation.

But, it is Shakuntala who is the true heroine of the film. She is the quiet conscience of the ashram – it is she who cares for Auntie, it is she who unwaveringly demands the keys from Madhumati to release Kalyani, and it is she who shows the finest display of selflessness at the end when she chases after the train to hand Chuyia over to Narayan. Shakuntala’s display of love and sacrifice leads us to believe in humanity in a way that Gandhi’s words (“God is truth; truth is God.”) cannot do. By themselves, the words are empty, hollow, and devoid of real practicalities. Yet it is Shakuntala’s actions that make us believe that, for all its flaws, humanity has its redeeming qualities.

Perhaps it is because we want so much to believe in this capability of humanity for good, amidst of world that appears so frequently to be overrun by the ugliness and evil of humankind, that the ending of Water is so powerful. There is no shame in such optimism; there may be some who feel the ending too trite or too unfashionable in an era of postmodernist relativity – I am not one of them. Shakuntala’s actions are not inconceivable; humanity is capable of acts of simple heroism. Her act, however, poignantly illustrates the sacrifice encompassed in love; the look on Shakuntala’s face as she is left behind after the train pulls away to return to her old life is a piercing reminder that life frequently leaves many without a better hope or a better life for themselves.

Rating: * * * *

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