After being released from a British prison, Gandhi told his followers that he used to think God was truth but that he’d come to realize truth was God. Water, the third film in a trilogy by the Indian-born, Canadian-based filmmaker Deepa Mehta, turns on this distinction.
Set in a provincial Indian city in 1938, Water begins as the story of a little girl, Chuyia (a performance by child actor Sarala that is nothing short of miraculous), who is married as an infant by her parents, only to find herself a widow at the age of 7. Two thousand-year-old Hindu scripture decrees that widows must either be burnt with the remains of their husbands or forced to live in a kind of exile, never remarrying, and virtually untouchable, reduced to scraping together the money to live through begging and prostitution. And so the little girl finds herself unceremoniously left at a widow’s ashram, the youngest member of a community of dispossessed women. Water is the story of what happens to her — and to some of the older women who take her in.
Mehta’s film has the quality of a vivid dream. But this is a dream informed by righteous anger. Water is a cry of the heart, a challenge to calcified traditions, no matter how seemingly sacred, that ultimately serve to perpetuate some people’s power while visiting pain and degradation on others.
Mehta began shooting her film on location in the Indian town of Varanasi in 2000. Almost immediately, she became the target of death threats and the set built for the production was burnt to the ground. When political parties in the region lined up against her, Mehta decided to shut her production down and left the country. Five years later, she took another cast and crew to Sri Lanka, where she announced she was to shoot a new film. That film, whose title was kept under wraps, turned out to be Water.
On screen, Deepa Mehta’s determination borders on magical realism. While the film is primarily told from a child’s point of view, it deftly encompasses the lives of an entire ensemble, giving the film an exceptional emotional richness while also evoking an India in the early stirrings of social revolution. Tender yet unflinching, compassionate yet uncompromising, this film will shake you as it extends a hand and lifts you to higher ground. In an era as given to the blunt retort as ours has become, Water is a transcendent work of art.