“What if your conscience conflicts with your faith?” The agony in the Hindu woman’s voice as she poses that question to her guru is heartbreaking, and for anyone who takes his or her faith seriously enough to wrestle with it, her pain is immediately recognizable. Water might be about people in very specific circumstances — Hindu widows exiled to a crumbling home in 1930s India — but the question at its heart is universal. Writer-director Deepa Mehta’s film is lyrical and beautifully shot, but the universality of its theme and the quiet profundity of Mehta’s examination of it make Water much more than a pretty picture postcard. Unsettling and powerful, Water lingers in the mind long after the screen goes dark.
The movie opens with a little girl, still several years away from puberty, learning that she has become a widow. Her father shaves her head, dresses her in plain white mourning clothes, and abandons Chuyia at a widows’ ashram on the bank of the Ganges. Traditional Hindu law condemns her and the other widows to live out the rest of their “impure” lives there in poverty and isolation.
For a while, Chuyia (Sarana) stubbornly insists that her mother is coming to take her home, but eventually she adjusts to life at the ashram, and the other widows adjust to the little girl in their midst. Beautiful young Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the only widow with an unshaven head, befriends Chuyia, who sometimes serves as a go-between for her and Narayan (John Abraham), an educated man who disdains the traditions that prohibit widows from remarrying. The only other ashram resident, besides Chuyia, who knows of Kalyani’s secret romance is Shakuntala (Seema Biswas).
Shakuntala is an enigma for much of the movie but ultimately its heart. Many of the other widows reflexively follow custom, but Shakuntala is truly devout, faithfully following the teachings of a local holy man and sprinkling the meeting area with holy water before he speaks. Although she knows about corruption within the ashram (Kalyani’s head is unshorn for a reason), she holds fast to the principles behind its existence, at least at first: Chuyia’s presence plants seeds of doubt.
Ray has the romantic, Bollywood-esque role as the star-crossed Kalyani, and her performance is tender and affecting. At one point, Kalyani compares herself to a lotus, beautiful in its purity despite the muck around it, and the analogy is apt. Ray’s beauty and her serene bearing inspire cinematographer Giles Nuttgen to create some of the most breathtaking images in this gorgeous film.
But Biswas’ portrayal of Shakuntala is the performance that sticks with you. With few lines but many close-ups, Biswas gives dignity to her character’s struggle; the pain in her eyes, the frustration in her pressed lips and the confusion in her knit eyebrows tell us all we need to know about Shakuntala’s journey over the course of the film.
The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi provide a backdrop to Water, reminding us that the Hindu leader worked tirelessly for the liberation of women and an end to caste discrimination, among other noble aims. But Shakuntala reminds us that ordinary people had to find the courage to see Gandhi’s dreams to fruition. Ordinary people had to question their assumptions about their faith and find the courage to change.