Friday, 16 July 2010


What's this all about then? Not as the title suggests 'water' - but that is an ever present theme uniting the different strands of the narrative. On one level it could be viewed as a docu-drama. Set in India in 1938 it could be seen as a record of how Hindu society treats widows - even when they are only 8 years old and their marriage hasn't been consummated. It could be seen as an Indian Romeo and Juliet - complete with balcony scene. It's also an interesting piece of social history as Gandhi's mantra is gaining popularity in the last days of the Raj. The film has very few sets, but those it uses it exploits to the full - particularly the waterfront shots in Varanasi. The film is beautifully lit and the camera work is stunning but at times it's very hard to decipher what is being said.

Chuyia is widowed at the age of 8 and in following custom she has her head shaven and is dressed in white. Her family arrange to take her to an Ashram on the banks of the Ganges where she will live out the rest of her life - widows will be cursed if they remarry. Her arrival has a big impact on the community and her feisty behaviour soon sets her against the leading widow Madhumati. To supplement the Ashram's income Madhumati lets the younger more beautiful widows out to sleep with local Brahmans whose attentions are considered a blessing. One of these widows is Kalyani.

Water is always present and the source is nearly always the Ganges (the well in the Ashram presumably shares the same water table). Whether it be for drinking, cooking, ritual cleansing, clothes washing or taking the dead away, bodily or in ashen form, water is the link.

 As the story follows life in the Ashram with all its ups and downs, which include Madhumati's drug taking and the death of an old widow, so we see a chance encounter between Kalyani and newly qualified idealistic lawyer Narayan, who has bought into Gandhi's philosophy. There is an immediate spark between Kalyani and Narayan and situations are engineered to ensure further encounters between the two sometimes using Chuyia as a go-between.

The story paints a stark contrast throughout by setting the traditions of the Ashram and Hindu society over and against the liberalising call of Gandhi and his followers who want to see India develop and move forward. This tension is personified in the developing love between Kalyani and Narayan. Eventually a decision is made and the film heads towards a climax - but there is a twist.

As I indicated earlier, you can watch this film on a number levels. It is a love story. It is social commentary and also an exploration of tradition being overturned by a liberalising trend. What stood out for me?

It is always very difficult to engage with a narrative that is set within and follows the values of a different culture. I have had the privilege of travelling to India many times and I love the country and her people. Time after time I would return home to asked 'what was it like?'. That is the hardest question to answer because the response begs for comparisons to be made. Making comparisons is all well and good when there is what anthropologists call a 'dynamic equivalent' - that is something that acts as a vehicle to allow understanding in one culture to be transferred, with meaning intact, to another culture. India is such a different kind of place that there are few dynamic equivalents - you simply cannot always describe things in India that make any kind of sense in the West. The cultures are too alien.

Therefore it would be all too easy to get hung up on the Hindu tradition of widows being segregated in Ashrams which in liberal Western eyes would be seen as a denial of the widow's human rights. In India religious tradition is deemed to be of higher value than an individual's rights in this case. From our Western perspective the whole notion of arranged child-bride marriages is hard to understand and few would condone it. Yet it is not so long ago in Europe that Children married and were given in marriage.

I would say for me one of the redeeming features of the story was the evident sense of community and interdependence the Ashram demonstrated. These are very Christian values (perhaps human too,) and life in the Ashram would in many ways mirror life in a Monastery or Convent - but we don't admit 8 year olds to religious communities! The denial of potential is for me the saddest thing about this film.

As with all institutions - and especially with religious ones - the story also highlights ever present hypocrisy. As the film opens we are shown words from the Hindu scriptures which teach that a widow who lies with a man will be re-born in the womb of a Jackal. Yet, Madhumati pimps out the girls to enjoy a blessing with local Brahmans. I guess the blessing out-weighs the 'sin'- a theology of convenience.

I was also struck by the treatment of the pain of a challenge to long-established traditions. Each successive generation seems to be more liberal than their predecessors and wants to push back the boundaries and redefine things held dear for centuries. The process of change of tradition can be a slow and painful process. How different societies manage this process and the success of the outcome varies with what is trying to be changed and the culture in which it is valued. If I look back over 30 years of my adult life, it seems that tradition is always under threat of erosion - but I'm sure that new ones are also being established - it's just that we haven't got the benefit of time to give us a long perspective yet.

Finally, I was also struck by the classic love story that lies at the centre of this film. It appeared very Western - as I said, almost Romeo and Juliet like. Perhaps love is the universal experience that has a dynamic equivalent in every culture and the whole film was simply very Indian.

Well worth a watch - 8/10.

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