In Deepa Mehta’s film Water, after the opening credits, we see a 7-year-old Chuyia being asked by her father if she remembers being married. She cannot. Her husband died, he tells her. She’s now a widow, and is required to live a life of ascetic denial at an ashram for widows, who are considered to be only half-alive, and essentially outcaste.
Mehta tried to make this film in India for five years. This powerful eyewitness article entitled The Politics of Deepa Mehta’s Water features the many attempts to make the film through violent protests, arson, death threats, and political posturing:
“The day before filming was due to begin, the crew was informed that there were a few complications with gaining location permits. The following day we were greeted with the news that 2,000 protesters had stormed the ghats, destroying the main film set, burning and throwing it into the holy river. Protesters burnt effigies of Deepa Mehta, and threats to her life began.”
“Breaking up the sets was far too mild an act, the people involved with the film should have been beaten black and blue. They come with foreign money to make a film which shows India in poor light because that is 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 brides. And people like Deepa Mehta pander to them.”
In fact, opposition to this project was so severe that Mehta even had to film in Sri Lanka under a fake title.
But Mehta did not make a movie about how evil India is. Mehta is indeed very critical of Hindu Fundamentalism, but this wasn’t the film’s point at all.
The film shows that mistreatment of widows in India is not, at heart, about the flaws we find only in Indian culture or religion. As Mehta sees it, it is really about economics and male privilege. Families use ancient beliefs about widows as an excuse to clear up some space in the family home and feed one less person. In fact, one of the characters in the film said it best, and quite painfully also:
“One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner
in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.”
Gender inequity is also blatantly obvious. Widows in India constitute a large pool of desperate, starving women, and many of them have no choice but to resort to prostitution. Their situation is so dire that the men who rent their bodies can say so themselves that they are even doing these women a kindness.
In the film, Mehta also portrays the solution to the problem as coming from within Indian thought and culture, symbolized by talk throughout the film about Mohandas Gandhi and his movement to reform the caste system. His words are quoted and tut-tutted by people along the chain of privilege who stand to lose their bit of benefit if widows are actually liberated.
It also bears pointing out that (judging from all the energy spent protesting feminism) talking about the mistreatment of women appears to be a bigger crime than, you know, actually mistreating women.