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Friday, February 28, 2014

Institutionalising women's body in a social context as seen in Deepa Mehta's Water

Steve R Mathew


1st MA English with Communication Studies

Contemporary critical theory

Mr Anil Pinto

28th February 2104


Institutionalising women’s body in a social context as seen in Deepa Mehta’s Water


This study discusses Mehta’s film Water as a complex social document that in a way confronts and uncovers a malaise that prevails in Hindu society. The film grapples with the evil custom of sending Hindu widows away to pilgrimage centres where, forgotten by the acquisitive world, they live abrogated lives in miserable penury. The body which is, as it is seen as a site of degradation and sin by the Hindu society comes forth in a visual form where Deepa Mehta explores the binaries of presence/absence, sin/sinner, male/female and right/wrong. The movie binds the elemental with the feminine and probes the way women are preyed upon and shackled by social institutions pulverized and bartered by patriarchy. The movie represents in its totality a powerful and significant cultural challenge to the dominating masculine values and practices of oppression, subjugation and exploitation of women. Since Mehta happens to be a woman director, her courage in the face of intimidation by the largely patriarchal forces must be acknowledged as the immensely relevant preface to her film Water. The film documents, perhaps a little melodramatically, the marginalized life of forgotten Hindu widows battling to survive the harsh realities of neglect and poverty.


The film is set in the year 1938, when India was still under British rule. Child marriage was common practice back then. Widows had a diminished position in society, and were expected to spend their lives in poverty and worship of God. Widow re-marriages were legalized by the colonial laws, but in practice, they were largely considered taboo. The movie deals with such notions and challenges the predefined concepts, very much believed in the Hindu society. In a society where a woman’s identity is governed by her male relative–whether father, husband, or son–and eventual patrilocality, it would appear that after the death of the husband, she “ceases” as a person and passes into a state of social death.” Since a woman is regarded primarily as a vessel of reproduction, her “social death” also signals her “sexual death.” As a widow she is pushed to the margins of the functioning social unit of the family and is alienated from reproduction sexuality. She begins to be regarded as a disrupter of the social order and the society is not at ease about other categories because a woman is not regarded as an independent being.


 Like its predecessors “Fire” (1996), which explored gender and lesbianism in India and “Earth” (1998), which looked at the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, “Water” digs deep into issues that many in India are reluctant to discuss. Now that it has finally been released, it is easy to see why defenders of tradition would want to thwart it. Set in the late 1930s against a backdrop of social upheaval and the quest for national independence, the movie explores the lives and the changing expectations of India’s ultimate outcasts:widows.

The film is packed with emotional scenes, bordered by breaks of comical moments. Much of the levity comes from the spirited lead character, Chuyia (Sarala), a feisty eight-year-old child widow who is brought by her father to a widow’s ashram in the holy city of Varanasi shortly after her husband dies. Chuyia rejects her new life, in which she is forbidden to see her family again, to remarry, to eat hot food or grow long hair and is expected instead to embrace a life of chastity and begging on street corners, while being draped in white for the rest of her life.  Living at the ashram, Chuyia meets the young and naive Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Kalyani is pimped in order to pay the ashram’s expenses by the bitter and vulgar-tongued Madhumati (Manorama), an elderly widow who rules the house with an iron hand.

John Abraham, star of action-packed Bollywood films, such as Karam, (2005) Paap, (2004) and Jism (2002) steps out of those song and dance numbers to play a more serious role as Narayan, a  radicalized, upper caste law student and follower of Mahatma Ghandi, who pushes to change India’s feudal traditions and ultimately falls in love with Kalyani.
The humble and faithful Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who is known for Bollywood films like Pinjar (2003) and Bandit Queen (1994) becomes a mother figure for the young Chuyia. Shakuntala is a devout follower of Hindu scriptures, who only gradually begins to question the cruel conditions that her faith requires widows to endure.

Deepa Mehta’s film Water contributes to this filmic discourse on widowhood and makes commendable attempts to embed the cinematic images in the dialectical force-field of social practice and the urgent need for change.

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