In Fire, set in Agra and Delhi, a beautiful young wife reacts against her selfish, womanising husband by having an affair with her sister-in-law. Earth takes place in New Delhi where the tragic events surrounding the 1947 Partition are seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old Parsee girl whose beautiful Hindu nanny is in love with a Muslim.  Water, is the concluding film of Deep Mehta’s courageous trilogy that attacks patriarchal oppression and religious bigotry in India.  It is set in 1938 in the religious city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh and focuses on the plight of widows, who either have to die on their husband’s funeral pyre or marry their husband’s brother or live a live of poverty and seclusion in a widows ashram.       

Chuyia’s husband dies when she is just 8 years old.  Her father has no choice but send her to the ashram.  All of the inmates are older than her, some quite elderly. They have their hair shaven and are obliged to beg in order to eat.  Only one woman is allowed to keep her hair, the beautiful Kalyani, who is forced to prostitute herself to make extra money for the ashram.  Although religion is used to justify the terrible treatment of widows, the decision to expel them from their families is more about economics.  ‘One less mouth to feed, and the cost of four saris, one bed and a corner in the family home saved.’  

Narayan, a young lawyer and a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, falls in love with Kolyani, but when he takes her across the lake to meet his family, Kolyani realises that Narayan’s  father is the elderly Brahmin she has been prostituted to.  She insists that the boat is turned around.  That night while Narayan goes to confront his father she walks into the water and drowns herself. 

Chuyia, who has angered the elderly woman who runs the ashram by her rebelliousness, is then sent across the lake to be raped by Narayan’s father.  To escape the same fate as Kolyani, one of the other women in the ashram gives her to Narayan so she can be brought up in freedom as a follower of Gandhi.  

Although the British abolished suttee, they could not intervene to end this barbaric institutional incarceration, but it is a time of change.  Gandhi’s intervention has brought about a law allowing widows to remarry, but traditionalists do not accept it. 

Water is an exquisite piece of film-making.  The scenes of water are beautiful; misty  lakes with rafts of lotus flows, the distant islands and mountains,  early morning ablutions of the faithful, the torrential rain.  But although the water looks beautiful, it is polluted and dangerous. Beneath the surface is sexual abuse and death.  “Learn to live like a lotus untouched by the filthy water it grows in,” one of the widows is told in the film.   

 

Water was made at the start of a new millennium.  Nevertheless, some sixty years on, the film raised such a storm of protest in India that there was a riot on the set and it had to be shot in secret in Sri Lanka.   

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