It’s rare for me to stumble across a great film that I haven’t seen before but this week I was in luck. WATER is part of the ELEMENTS trilogy (FIRE, EARTH, WATER) that was directed and co-written by Deepa Mehta. You do not need to see the films in order as they are stand-alone stories.
Set in 1938, against the backdrop of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent uprising, WATER follows eight year-old Chuyia who, when her adult husband dies, is abruptly sent to live in poverty at an ashram with other widows. In the Hindu fundamentalist tradition, widows were (and in some areas still are) treated as outcasts from society…even very young girls who were in arranged marriages to men they had not yet met. Chuyia, not surprisingly, doesn’t understand her sudden change in circumstances and asks how the ashram can possibly be her new home if her Ma isn’t there? Her story intertwines with another young widow who is prostituted out to the gentry in order to pay the ashram’s rent and with a middle-aged widow whose bleak yet unshakable faith begins to shift with the changing social tide.
Director Deepa Mehta was born and educated in India and then emigrated to Canada, where she now works and lives. Many of her films are socially progressive. She has been persecuted for her work and had to shut down in the middle of production on WATER for four years when Hindu nationalists threatened her safety. She eventually resumed filming in Sri Lanka and, in fact, the character of Chuyia was played by a wonderful Sri Lankan child actor in what was her first film.
WATER was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007 and is streaming on Netflix. It is a profound immersion into a world we seldom get to see and one that urges us to act on behalf of all of the invisible women still living without hope or opportunity.