Film Review: The Watery Grave for Widowed Hindu Women


Written by SP

Interesting to note is that while the narrative has to do with women and women’s problems, the most powerful figures are both men: Narayan (named after the Hindu God Vishnu, who is known as the protector of life, which could be a nod towards his role in the film) and Gandhi.

How then can the same Brahmins commit adultery with the widows they wish would remain chaste?


Set in 1938, the highly acclaimed and highly censored Water explores the lives of widows living under the rules of rigorous Brahmanical patriarchy. Water was the final instalment in the Elements Trilogy directed by Deepa Mehta. Its predecessors, Fire and Earth, explored facets of taboo topics in India as well. Fire explored the homosexual relationship of two frustrated and oppressed married Indian women, and Earth was a devastating look at the transformation of friends turned bitter enemies by the venomous loathing brought on by the partition of India.


Like Fire, Water too was banned in India. This hardly came as a surprise. Trouble brewed for this film starting right from its production. Indo-Canadian filmmaker, Deepa Mehta, wasn’t allowed to even shoot in India. The film had to be shot in Sri Lanka instead, with Mehta disguising the production by calling the film “River Moon” to avoid being found out. There were widespread protests in India from various political parties and religious groups. In contrast, Deepa Mehta’s home-country Canada acclaimed, honoured, and selected the film as its official entry to the Oscars, where it was nominated for Best Foreign Film. 


Water deals with the plight of widows forced to live as if they are putrefied.


There are four main female characters in the film, who represent the various styles of struggle women undertake to survive under patriarchy:


Chuhiya, a child-widow who doesn’t even remember when she was married, represents the lost childhood of the women cast away by society before they even understand what society means.


Madhumati, the thug of the widow-ashram, who bullies the other women into listening to her, represents those women who have given up on fighting patriarchy and have instead decided that being a woman is a zero-sum game, and it is better to kill than to be killed. These are the women upholding the patriarchy and using it to their advantage.


Shakuntala is the most conflicted character in the film. She is caught in an internal battle between her faith in her religion and her contempt for her condition. She represents the paradox of being an ethical conformist in a patriarchal society: initially believing in the power of truth in religion, but slowly disillusioned with the inherent unfairness of her beliefs.


Kalyani is a good-looking widow who is exploited by Madhumati and prostituted for profit. She’s also the only one allowed to grow her hair long because the men she’s prostituted to prefer it. She represents the trampled, oppressed woman: whose beauty has become her deadliest curse. Abandoned by both genders she was at first a metaphorical “whore” (she is assumed to be a woman of “loose” character because of her beauty) and then turned into a literal “whore”, not by men as one may think, but by a woman.


Interesting to note is that while the narrative has to do with women and women’s problems, the most powerful figures are both men: Narayan (named after the Hindu God Vishnu, who is known as the protector of life, which could be a nod towards his role in the film) and Gandhi.


Narayan props up as the “male saviour” looking to save widows from their oppression, and Gandhi is alluded to, but never shown, paralleling a God-figure under whose utopian care everything will be alright.


Narayan falls in love with Kalyani, and assures her he will get her out of the life she’s living, and marry her, giving her a new life. He vows to do so even when he finds out she is being forced to prostitute herself. However, when he takes her with him to meet his parents, she recognises his house from a distance, and realizes a horrible truth: Narayan’s father, who he considers a righteous man, is one of her nocturnal clients.

Kalyani is told to keep her hair long in order to make her more aesthetically appealing to her “clients”. However, there is more to it than meets the eye..  Her wealthy Brahmins clients are the very people making the rules that oppress widows. A widow is not allowed to grow her hair long for the sake of her purity; this loosely translates to ensuring the widows do not commit adultery).

How then can the same Brahmins commit adultery with the widows they wish would remain chaste?


Kalyani’s long hair allows the Brahmins to create this illusion, and convince themselves that they’re not doing anything wrong. The widow they are sleeping with is not a widow. How can she be? Her hair is long.


This illusion is clear in the scene where Narayan confronts his father about his whoring ways. Narayan’s father, in a classic patriarchal manner, twists verses from holy texts to suit his means, justifying his actions by telling his son that the girls he sleeps with will get purified because she is sleeping with a Brahmin. Narayan, a follower of M K Gandhi, resents him by saying that those people who twist the verses to suit their purpose do not respect the holy texts.


What’s telling is that Narayan, like Gandhi, does regard the Hindu texts to be righteous. He does not give up on the varna system, or on the patriarchal norms of society (despite agreeing to remarry the widow Kalyani, and take her away to Calcutta). It’s not a surprise, considering the biggest influence on Gandhi was Leo Tolstoy, himself a patriarchal master, whose wife was rather unhappy with her condition.

The female characters do not have any external agency in the film. The only true act of rebellion and empowerment we see in the film is when Shakuntala stands up to Madhumati, and frees Kalyani from her room: and as the only act of true assertion, it is telling that this assertion is of a woman against another woman, not against men.

Shakuntala, while starting to stand up against her oppression, is still to truly free herself from the shackles of religion, as she neither renounces her religion, nor stands up to men. Instead, she surrenders Chuhiya to what she considers a better future with Gandhi and Narayan, the saviour men.


But does this mean that the film does not empower women? Should the women in the ashram have rebelled against the patriarchy and lived the way they wanted?


In the climax of the film, as the train departs, a desperate Shakuntala runs alongside the train, asking people to take Chuhiya with them. She spots Narayan on the train and hands Chuhiya over to him. The train departs, carrying Chuhiya away, leaving the teary-eyed Shakuntala behind, as if suggesting that while it is too late for an oppressed Shakuntala to better her lot in life, Chuhiya can still “escape” the patriarchal society to live in the promised land of Gandhi’s ashram.


The final statement the film seems to make is a little unsettling, but rather true: that you cannot escape or change the patriarchal setup you live in right now, but instead only escape your condition. True, change will only come with a rejection of the faith itself, leaving Shakuntala unable to escape. Chuhiya is not shackled to faith. Shakuntala is.


Water has been used as a symbol throughout film history: standing often for baptism, birth, and rebirth. In this film, water is a symbol of oppression. The titular Water in this case is the Ganga, the Holiest River. 


In Indian mythology, the river Ganga is personified as a woman.  What’s doubly ironic is that a dip in the Ganga is supposed to rid Hindus of their paap, or sins, and is therefore, in Hindu myth, also a symbol of baptism, or rebirth. However, what purifies the impure men, oppresses the women. Kalyani has to cross the Ganga every time she has to prostitute herself to one of these impure men, who presumably take a dip in the Ganga in the morning to get rid of their sin of adultery.


And yet again, the ironic juxtaposition comes back to haunt us: because when Kalyani goes to take a dip in the Ganga, she does get rid of her sins. Through death.

In the climax of the film, Kalyani is unable to cope with what she thinks is her inexcusable sin of sleeping with her lover’s (and potential husband’s) father, that is to say, her future father-in-law. She chooses to end her life by drowning herself in the Ganga.


The expression of societal power through the tool of “shame” is documented, as it is “shame” that is used to oppress Kalyani. Even when she has been freed, she remains “trapped” without any physical boundaries, because “shame” forces her to kill herself.


By dying by suicide, Kalyani is finally released from the shackles of oppression, and is finally free to flow like the waters of the Ganga.