Water, written and directed by Deepa Mehta, is the last in her trilogy of “element” films, and it is a crowning achievement for its creator. While Fire (1996) was about the politics of sexuality in Indian society, and Earth (1998) about the politics of nationalism in Indian history, Water takes a look at the politics of religion in both society and history. And a deeply moving look it is.
The film is set in the northern Indian town of Varanasi (Benares) in 1938, where a group of widows lives in a dilapidated ashram near the banks of the holy Ganges river. They have made their home here in obedience to the ancient Hindu tradition that widows live out the rest of their lives in asceticism– in reality, a state of forced poverty and deprivation. Spanning four generations, most of these women can see no other way to live, have never stopped to question religious tradition or their own circumscribed destiny.
But for a few, universal questions raise themselves: the conflicts between conscience and faith, truth and honor, modernity and tradition, freedom and responsibility. When love springs up between one of the women and a young lawyer from a wealthy family– a progressive Gandhi-ite who has no qualms about marrying a widow– the stage is set for hope, and tragedy.
The script is exquisitely crafted, and though it has much more on its mind than a simple love story, the love story is allowed to develop a romantic sweep which is new for Mehta. The message in this film is as urgent and heartfelt as in the first two of the series, but without the abrasive political edge which occasionally creeps into them. There are challenging ideas to be sure, but they are brought out organically, subtly in the dialogue and characterization, gradually drawing us to an astonished realization of how much is at stake. As star Lisa Ray summed it up in an interview, this is “a film more from the heart than the mind.”
The performances are uniformly outstanding, and in the case of the three main characters, nearly revelatory. Ray plays the beautiful Kalyani, who is pimped to the local gentry as a way of bringing some income to the ashram. Kalyani accepts her fate meekly and with as much grace and dignity as she is able. In a midnight rendezvous with her suitor, she says she must adhere to the ideals of Krishna, “Learn to live like a lotus, untouched by the filthy water it lives in.” He replies, “Krishna was a god. Not everyone can live like a lotus