Wednesday, November 6, 2013


This post follows cultural/spiritual perspective and response criteria. Major spoiler alert.

Deepa Mehta's 2005 film Water (वाटर in Hindi) was written and translated by Anurag Kashyap. Set in 1983, this film examines the harsh treatment and livelihood of widowers in Indian society. Before the DVD was even set up to play, Mimi asked members of the class where they drew the line when it came to movies. In other words, what did they think counted as inappropriate or having gone too far? I mulled over this question as my classmates talked about child abuse, scenes that portray torture, children depicted as the enemy, a distinct lack of plot, et cetera. All very understandable. Now, because the story of Water focuses (in-part) on the struggles of a little girl named Chuyia—played by Sarala Kariyawasam—this meant that it was difficult to watch for some members of the audience. On a personal level, I base my response on more of a character-to-character basis. If I am invested in someone, I dislike to see harm come their if they were people I actually knew in real life. On the other hand, if it serves the story and helps to get the point across, then I do not mind seeing them placed in peril. Those things are at odds with one another, mais c'est la vie. Let us move onto the meat of the post.

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material (sex, drug use).

The presenters told us of Radha Krishna, a Hindu god/goddess usually considered as one being. In Water, Mehta's lead character's Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and Narayan (John Abraham) acted as physical interpretations of this deity. The story is definitely improved with this context in mind, as it creates ties to one of India's most ancient religions and helped bring it into the modern world. Given that the love story of Radha Krishna is celebrated so highly in Hinduism, it was interesting to watch the interaction between these two Romeo and Juliet-esque characters. Social caste repeatedly won out against seemingly pious views simply because it benefited the Brahmin class. The entire film did an excellent job exploring related fallacies, which is one of the reasons why Mehta was spoken out against so vehemently in her native India.

Kalyani, the prostituting widow, and Narayan, the Brahmin follower of Gandhi.

Something that struck me about Kalyani was her portrayal as a sort of martyr. The widows were all dressed in white, branding them as being widows in Indian society. They were seen as unclean but, in so many other cultures across the globe, white depicts innocence and purity and usually signifies virginity. Even in India, fair skin means wealth and a high-born class. In fact, white was traditionally reserved for the Brahmin caste...odd, given revised circumstances. We know that Kalyani's husband died before they even met. Then again, she was prostituted in the widow house...but as our presenters informed us, this place exists in Varanasi, which is considered the holy land of India. Something to mull over. Anyway, Kalyani ended up drowning herself in the cleansing waters of the river Varuna after finding out that she had slept with her fiancee's father as a means of income. She saw herself as unfit for marriage because of a 'sin' forced upon her in order to pay for her fellow widows' welfare: a truly tragic story of self-sacrifice in the name of love. Kalyani's very essence is that of a dutifully religious and caring individual. She is simply placed in unfortunate circumstances. Narayan falls for her at first sight because of her physical beauty—although their meeting had a rather fateful aspect—but her gentle and humble personality is what bound them together as kindred spirits, what with Narayan's belief in pacifism and equality. We also have to consider that clearly iconographic scene of Kalyani as she prayed to her god. Here's my take:

Bit of a resemblance, no?

That obviously dips across cultures and into Christianity (the Madonna figure), but Hindu scripture is very important in Water—as revealed in the trailer. Another link that I did not recognize during my first viewing of the film was the tree under which Kalyani and Narayan had their rendezvous. It looked like a Pipal/Bodhi, which was the same type of tree that Gautama Buddha supposedly meditated beneath until he "found the truth." Narayan said over and over that truth was the most important thing in life. We could also consider Gandhi's tie to Buddhism, since he was another character in the film and an inspiring figure for Narayan. Just something else to think about, I suppose. The final thing I want to addresses is something that I remembered hearing in musician/comedian Tim Minchin's nine-minute beat poem, Storm. In the story, Minchin debates with an imaginary New Age hippie existing under the horrible namesake of 'Storm'. Over the course of a dinner party, he demolishes the girl's anti-logic/anti-science arguments through intelligent social commentary. Some lyrics are as follows:

"And fine, if you wish to
Glorify Krishna and Vishnu
In a post-colonial, condescending,
Bottled-up and labeled kind of way
Then whatever, that's OK..."

I've probably listened to the song way too much (I'm kind of obsessed with the guy, so it was really only a matter of time before some of his insight appeared on my blog), but when the presenters mentioned on Saturday that Krishna was an incarnation of Vishnu, I immediately recalled that bit of the poem. Looking at it more deeply after having read Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things in a world lit. course, I can see Mehta's similar criticism seeping through in Water. Minchin mocks how some non Indian-born people adapt Hinduism only in areas that work for them and without actually considering the deeper meanings of the religion and its negative effect upon society. Roy and Mehta have an insider's view on colonialism in relation to culture and spirituality...but that is another post entirely. As for Minchin, I recommend having a listen to Storm in full.

The official trailer for Water.

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  1. Another amazing post. I like that you're making use of knowledge from other courses, and folding in class discussions and themes. You look at religious imagery in the movie; you go beyond the Hindu faith to also explore iconic images of women in other religions. Great stuff.