Provost's Film Series

April 24, 2006



Violence on the Ganges

The third film in Deepa Mehta’s “elemental trilogy,” Water is set by the “ghats,” or stone stairs descending to the River Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi.  But it could not be filmed there.  Just as Mehta began shooting early in 2000, angry mobs of protestors, mostly fundamentalist Hindus, surrounded the set, torching props and burning Mehta in effigy.  As violence mounted, the director had to abandon the project after only two takes of the first scene.  Even the intervention of George Lucas—who purchased a full-page ad appealing for Mehta’s “freedom of expression”—could not save the project from being “shut down in the most brutal way.”

The outrage over the film stemmed mostly from its critique of Hindu legalism.  Mehta already had a reputation for controversy.  In 1996 Fire—the first in her elemental trilogy—explored lesbian themes and prompted one crowd to burn a theatre to the ground.   Two years later Earth depicted the contentious 1947 split between India and Pakistan.  But the script of Water—a poetic, often understated tale about the inhumane treatment of Hindu widows—proved the most incendiary. Mehta made a few amendments in the script to satisfy the censors, but rumors about the story prompted 10,000 persons to march in protest on the first day of the shoot.  Hundreds of Indian soldiers could not keep the peace.  The rioters were resolute in defense of their extremism.  “Breaking up the sets was far too mild an act,” one protestor wrote.  The filmmakers “should have been beaten black and blue.  They come in with foreign money to make a film which shows India in a poor light because they want what sells in the west.  The west refuses to acknowledge our achievements in any sphere but is only interested in our snake charmers and child bribes.  And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them.”  Discouraged by this “horrific experience,” Mehta devoted the next four years to diversionary projects—including the musical comedy Bollywood/Hollywood—and allowed time to quiet her anger.  By 2004, though, she and her Canadian-based team—including, by now, several new actors in lead roles—had relocated to Columbo, Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist city, to finish the project.  With courage in the face of death threats, Mehta finally released Water at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.


Gandhi and Widowhood

Set in 1938 during Mahatma Gandhi’s rise to fame, Water follows the plight of women consigned to a “widow house,” an ashram for those who have lost their husbands.  The Laws of Manu, among the sacred texts in Sanskrit known as the Dharmashastras, proclaim that

A widow should be longsuffering until death, self-restrained and chaste.

A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven.

A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal.

According to a highly legalistic and patriarchal reading of such scriptures, women who lose their husbands would be prohibited from remarriage.  Half of a woman, some Hindu teachers claim, dies with her husband.  One of the older widows in the ashram predicts blindness for the others who even think of love.  At the center of the film is the defiant love story between the illiterate Kalyani (played by Lisa Ray, who worked with Mehta on Bollywood/Hollywood) and Narayan, a student who admires the teaching of Gandhi.  Some characters, like the cold-hearted Madhumati, a 70-year-old widow who controls the ashram, fear that Gandhi will unsettle the “old traditions.”  Respect for all things British, including cricket, whiskey and Shakespeare, is juxtaposed against Gandhi’s appeals on behalf of the widows and the “Untouchables.”

As a sign of their estrangement, the women’s heads are shaven when they enter the ashram.  Two of the most acidic scenes occur when the older women take scissors and razors to the heads of the younger widows.   During the 1930s arranged marriages with children were more prevalent, and the film begins by focusing on the 8-year-old widow Chuyia, who was so young during her marriage that she cannot remember it.  Forced to live apart from her family, the feisty young Chuyia becomes a contentious free spirit within the dilapidated ashram.  “Widows are held in esteem all over India,” Mehta claims, “because they have given up the world and become ascetics . . . but once they have become ascetics they are treated badly.”  Isolated in the ashrams, the widows are expected to atone for the sins that presumably led to their husbands’ deaths.  Through such austerity, they strive to eliminate bad karma, but their seclusion also spares their families from financial burdens.  The real reason the ashram exists, according to Narayan, is to insure that there will be “one less mouth to feed,” four less saris to buy, and a free corner of the home.  Forced to beg for their livelihood, the widows in the ashram permit the beautiful Kalyani to keep her hair in order to be a prostitute.  Some of the moral thunder of the film reverberates when a man from a higher caste claims that Untouchables like Kalyani exist for his pleasure. Today many of the severe policies of the widow houses have been abandoned, although several of India’s 34 million widows are still sent to live apart from their families.


Mehta, Hindusim and Color

Born in Amristar, India, in 1950, Mehta was the daughter of a film distributor.  At the age of 23 she moved to Canada, and continues to live in Toronto.  Despite her critique of religious extremism, she remains a Hindu, adhering to the Advaita Vendata tradition.  One of the most famous schools of Hindu philosophy, Advaita Vendata emphasizes the monistic or non-dualistic nature of reality, the union of the self and the whole of humanity (“Advaita” literally means “not two”). With an emphasis on waking and dream states, Advaita Vendata identifies the individual soul (“atman”) with the Supreme Consciousness (“Brahman”).  “The Hinduism that I was exposed to and believe in,” Mehta claims, “ is compassionate, embracing all religions, respects contrary opinion and believes that God is within each of us.”  In fact, Mehta does not see Water as a narrowly Hindu story.  The film, she states, is about “the conflict between our consciences and our faith,” a “universal struggle” for all religious believers:  “I hope people who see it will feel compassion for their fellow human beings, even though they may be totally unfamiliar with the characters’ interior and external landscape.”  Despite its stark themes, Water does evoke hope, evident in the luminous cinematography of Giles Nuttgens.  Mehta encouraged Nuttgens to develop a palette of “dirty blue and green,” a blend of dark, shadowy images with vibrant colors and light.   One of the film’s triumphant scenes captures the Festival of Colors, the single day of the year when the widows are allowed to celebrate.  Usually attired in bland white cloths, the women splash brilliant dry colors all over their faces, decorating Chuyia as the young Krishna.  So many other marvelous tints and shades—the rich chiaroscuro candle scenes, the flowers in wedding festivals and on cremation pots, and the lilies in the water or the leaves of the Kadamba trees—reveal how the beauty of the world can survive in the midst of loneliness and despair.