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Who is Beneath the Coloured Veil? – Let’s Look at the Indian Women Depicted in Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy | Part 4 | Water

If you have been following this Elements series, you would have been introduced to Deepa Mehta, her Elements Trilogy, and how it introduces the plight of Indian women through film. Moreover, you would have gotten an insight into how Mehta has given women a voice by boldly illustrating how women have stood up and shaken the injustices they face off their shoulders, by speaking up for themselves. Mehta has taken a world of rich culture and heritage and allowed darker realities to creep in, revealing realities faced by Indian women throughout their existence. Again, if you have followed the series, you would have unpacked the first two films of the Trilogy, Earth, and Fire. Now, we look at Water



A widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste. A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died and goes to heaven a woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal. - The Laws of Manu


As Water is a film that describes the politics of religion, Mehta illustrates a world of the almost forgotten members of Hindu society: the widows. As per Hindu society, a widow is treated less than a human due to being condemned to live a life of solitude with the passing of her husband. The 2005 film depicts the life of pre-independent India, set in 1938, in an era where child marriage was still practiced in India as a means of relief for parents to be relieved of their young daughters. Nandkumar states most of these child brides are guaranteed to be child widows, as their husbands would die of health complications due to being elderly men. As widows, they would not be allowed to remarry as they were considered to bring misfortune. Thus, they were sent to live in a home for widows where they were expected to lead the rest of their lives in chastity and strict discipline serving God as a means to destroy such misfortune. 

The film begins with eight-year-old Chuyia, a child bride accompanying her dying husband on the last journey of his life. Traditional Hindu scripture (The Laws of Manu) dictates that “widows have three options.” The most virtuous decision would be for the widow to “burn with the dead husbands,” and if the husband’s family permits, the widow may “marry the husband’s younger brother.” For Chuyia, like many widows, the only option left is to “lead a life of self-denial.” Therefore, her father abandons her at a widow’s compound where, with a shaven head and a plain white saree, she will live out the rest of her long life in penitence. Once again, drawing on the epigraph of the film, according to Manu, a “widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste.” 

The widow compound is strategically located near the Ganges River, as it is regarded as sacred and clean. This theme of water is reprised throughout the film. Nandkumar states that water is necessary for both physical and spiritual life as it is: 

“simultaneously sacred and profane. Fleas and sins are both washed away. People bathe in the river, cleanse their bodies and souls, drink it, conduct religious rituals on it and use it as ‘holy water.” The ashes of the cremated are set afloat on it, and people drown themselves in it. The river divides the rich from the poor, the individual from her desires, and keeps lovers forever apart.”

In the film, the widow’s compound is run by Madhu Didi, who explains to Chuyia the religious and/or traditional duty of a widow: “In grief, we are all sisters here and this house is our refuge. Our Holy Books say a wife is part of her husband while he is alive. Right?” The other surrounding widows obediently assent, giving off the impression that Madhu Didi is the dictator of the oppressive tradition and the compound as a whole. “And when husbands die,” she concludes the catechism, “wives also half die.” However, Chuyia, being the pure and innocent child, points out that this statement means that wives are also half alive, immediately disrupting the compound with this retaliation. Through her, indirectly, both tropes of tragedy and liberation resonate loud and clear in the film.

Chuyia’s arrival at the compound is a welcomed strategy as the widows appear and behave as prison inmates, having the traditional ‘uniform’ of the white saree and shaven heads as a means of relinquishing all forms of vanity. Although all widows in the film have their own story, the viewer is granted access to a select few. Early in the film, the viewer sees Gulapi, a eunuch, who provides Madhu Didi with information from the outside world, as well as wads of marijuana. Gulapi tells her that Gandhi has called the “‘untouchables, children of God,’' and she is repulsed as widows are also among the untouchables. Moreover, she is aware that her survival is intimately connected to the pariah status of widowhood, as she sinisterly acquires money by prostituting the young widows in the compound.

The most elderly widow in the compound is a woman who has endured the lifestyle that Chuyia has entered, as she says that her husband also died when she was as young, saying “Life is unhappiness.” She passes her time by dreaming of the Indian sweets that are just like the ones that she had eaten at her wedding, many years ago, and pines for any form of affection. Later, when she passes away, another widow’s satirical comment sums up the oppression of India’s women and, ironically, the place of religion in this oppression by saying: “God willing, she’ll be reborn as a man.” Another widow who takes Chuyia under her wing, Shankuntula Didi, is a character in the film who is seeking a spiritual answer for her unhappiness, by performing daily rituals and prayers. The following conversation is between Shankuntula and the Hindu sadhu whom she seeks enlightenment from:

Sadhu: Shankuntula, you’ve been doing this service for many years. So many years of sacrifice and devotion. Do you feel closer to self-liberation?

Shankuntula: If self-liberation means detachment from worldly. Then no, I’m not closer.

Sadhu: Whatever happens, never lose your faith. Never lose your faith.

This spiritual man represents the religious path that seeks to enlighten, and the endless cycle of rebirth as believed in Hindu tradition. In his view, the unhappiness of the world is caused by “ignorance” and it is this “ignorance that is our misfortune.

The widows beg for money in the streets and outside temples to pay their rent to purchase items for their daily needs. Madhu Didi also prostitutes the women. Kalyani, a young and beautiful widow, lives in a separate room above the compound. For the sake of her ‘services,’ Madhu Didi allows her to keep her hair uncut. The first time the viewer encounters Kalyani is when she appears as an angel to Chuyia after the child runs away from the chaos she has created in the compound. Narayan is another character in the film, a young idealistic lawyer and devoted follower of Gandhi, sees Kalyani as a Goddess, and gradually falls in love with her. However, Chuyia and Narayan’s sentiments regarding Kalyani are not shared, as Madhu Didi and Gulapi (also the pimp) see her as a commodity, to be ferried across the river to the homes of the upper-class Brahmins where she is prostituted. As one of the characters points out “the gentry here have an ‘unnatural concern’ for widows”. 

Here the viewer sees that Mehta exposes the multiple hypocrisies that old Hindu tradition comes with, especially in the form of the Brahmins, who are supposedly men of God, and yet, they subject widows to the trauma of being untouchables while still having them for personal use. Even though neither Kalyani nor the other widows have a choice in Kalyani’s actions as she receives the money required for rent, the other widows isolate her, ensuring that she eats and sleeps alone saying: “With her uncut hair and ‘clients’ eating with Kalyani would pollute our food.” Ironically, the food is purchased through her exploitation. This theme of pollution echoes in the film, as there is a river scene in which a bridal party is performing a ritual when Shankuntula approaches to retrieve water. “Watch it,” she’s warned by a Brahmin, “Don’t let your shadow touch the bride.” Illustrating that even a widow’s shadow is regarded as impure and untouchable. 

In a similar scene, Kalyani is outside the compound chasing her dog, where she accidentally collides with a Brahmin’s wife. The woman is horrified and says: “What are you doing? Widows shouldn’t be running around like unmarried girls. You’ve polluted me. I have to bathe again.” To touch Kalyani is considered as pollution, however, the irony lies with the fact that the viewer later understands that the woman is Narayan’s mother, and one of Kalyani’s clients is indeed, Narayan’s father. 


When Narayan confronts his father about his explicit affairs with the widows, he responds to Narayan by advising him not to marry a widow but to make her his mistress, instead. As a Brahmin, he relies on holy texts repeating the same teaching that is so often said in the film “A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven. But a woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal.” Living by this teaching alone, Mehta portrays that even spiritual men of God are selfish, as actions such as these condemn the widow in their next life. However, Narayan’s father has a religious justification for this too, and says: “Brahmins can sleep with whomever they want, and the women they sleep with are blessed.” Mehta draws attention to the parallels found here, as she portrays a widow’s touch as being polluting, whereas a Brahmin’s touch is a blessing. In disgust, Narayan retorts: “Do you know what Lord Ram told his Brother? Never to honor those Brahmins who interpret the Holy Texts for their benefit.” Here, we understand that religion, truth, and conscience are at war against each other, suggesting that the only way to move forward is to reconcile them. 

At a pivotal scene in the novel, Chuyia’s excitement about finding out that Narayan wants to marry Kalyani, spills over to Madhu Didi who flies into a rage. As her well-being is dependent on Kalyani, she cannot afford to let her escape to Narayan and marriage. Furthermore, as Chuyia has been advised in the film, “Even to think of remarriage is a sin.” When the curious child asked “Why?” the reply was simple, “Ask God.” 

Madhu Didi goes to Kalyani:

Madhu Didi: Shameless! You’ll sink yourself and us. We’ll be cursed. We must live in purity, to die in purity. 

Kalyani: Then why do you send me across the river?

Madhu Didi: For survival. And how we survive here, no one can question, not even God.

This scene illustrates that even as a widow herself, Madhu Didi shows no affection for the widows in the compound with her. They are simply a means to an end, ensuring that she is fed and taken care of and that the rent is paid. She is aware of the status of widows, yet she remains content in her position of power. Straight after the above conversation, Madhu Didi cuts Kalyani’s beautiful long hair in an attempt to discipline her. 

That evening, Kalyani is once again ferried across the river, although this time, by Narayan as his future wife rather than Gulapi’s victim. However, as the couple reaches the house, Kalyani recognizes it as the Brahmin’s home that she has been prostituted to, and demands that Narayan take her back to the compound. She is unable to express the truth of the situation but simply states that Narayan should ask his father. While he confronts his father, Kalyani returns to the compound, discovering that Madhu Didi intends to continue exploiting her. As her situation and unhappiness begin to consume her, Kalyani commits one final act and drowns herself in the river. 

The following morning, as Kalyani’s body is being cremated on a funeral pyre, Shankuntula, the widow who had pursued a spiritual answer, attempts to understand the circumstances through the lens of her religion. “The Holy texts say all this is an illusion,” she tells Narayan.

Narayan: Kalyani’s death is no illusion.

Shankuntula: Have faith.

Narayan: Why is your faith so strong?

Shankuntula: I don’t know. Why are we widows sent to her? There must be a for it.

Narayan: One less mouth to feed. Four sarees were saved, one bed, and, a corner saved in the family home. There is no other reason why you are here disguised as religion, it’s just about money.

When Shankuntula had taken the keys from Madhu Didi the previous night, to release Kalyani and let her go with Narayan, she could not foretell that her liberating action for Kalyani would end in a double tragedy. Not only did the compound lose Kalyani to the river, but Madhu Didi’s sinister ways took control once again. When Chuyia claims that she wants to go home, Madhu Didi says “I am like your mother. You believe me, don’t you?” She tells Chuyia that “Gulapi will take [her] home,” home referring to Narayan’s father. Innocent Chuyia walks into the Brahmin’s rooms, astonished at the rich and beautiful room in stark comparison to the compound, and says, “I have come here to play.” 

Shankuntula realizes only too late what has befallen Chuyia and is unable to save her from the exploitation that Madhu Didi has put her up to. She understands that the child cannot live in the compound any longer as she will be subjected to the life that Kalyani lived. While at the riverbank, Shankuntula overhears that Gandhi and his supporters are making a brief stop at the train station; she knows that the only way for Chuyia to have a better life is to be under Gandhi’s wing. At the train station, she sees Narayan aboard the train, planning to accompany Gandhi on his mission; here, she hands Chuyia to Narayan, telling him to take Chuyia to Gandhi. 


Analysis of Water

While the film, Water, opens the viewer's eyes to this hidden aspect of India, the viewer is also left with a haunting feeling. The representation of women in the film is harrowing and uncomfortable as even one of their own is quick to exploit (Madhu Didi). The film tells the viewer of the harsh truths that befall widows in India, as untouchable beings who are only half alive. They are seen as impure and polluting, and unworthy of a second chance at life. Furthermore, the exploitation in the film is almost unbelievable as it indicates that a widowed old lady is sinister enough to exploit an eight-year-old child to live a comfortable life. As Mehta illustrates that the widows live a barely visible life, she draws attention to the lost women due to such harrowing circumstances in which religion and tradition dictate how one is condemned to live out the rest of their lives. 

As the film constantly speaks of men in high regard, the viewer understands the strong impression that the old Hindu tradition keeps men as superior human beings. As gender plays a significant role in the film, we can look to Judith Butler on the topic. Butler asks how gender is given and through what means. She suggests that gender is not specifically the male and female difference, but rather a cultural construction; in the Indian context, however, the dynamics change, while Western feminism speaks of the sexed body of a woman, whereas the Indian continent sees the body as a medium through which meanings are produced, not a receptacle where inscribing and imposing assume it to be a blank slate. Moreover, to say that gender is a cultural construction then means that the body is imbricated in the everyday practices of women: “modes of the walk, talk, work, dressmaking the body this medium through which femininity is constituted in its cultural form”. As Butler has suggested that gender is bound by cultural construction, we see that this is true in terms of orthodox Hindu tradition, as the body is only to be used for the pleasure of the husband, rendering it useless upon his death. 

Finally, these feminine virtues and values which have been inferred and/or recommended by religious books have been used to marginalize the issues of women’s subordination, and painfully strip their body once she becomes a widow and moves into a home only for widows.

I highly recommend watching this film. It is simultaneously a film of beauty and heartbreak. Suddenly the ugliness of surviving a spouse is made larger than any reality thought. The film is the perfect third installment of the Trilogy. 

Next time, we will conclude this series with a final analysis. 


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