India has made headlines as an emerging superpower, a land of high-tech multi-millionaires and a vast new market for American goods. But there is another India too, and it is not just the one of villages and ox carts that has always been best known in the West.
This is the disturbing India of the Hindu widow, a woman traditionally shunned as bad luck and forced to live in destitution on the edge of society. Her husband's death is considered her fault, and she has to shave her head, shun hot food and sweets and never remarry. In the pre-independence India of the 1930s, the tradition applied even to child brides of five or six who had been betrothed for the future by their families but had never laid eyes on their husbands.
Into this milieu now comes the director Deepa Mehta with Water, a lush new film about Chuyia, an eight-year-old widow in the India of 1938. She has barely met her husband but is banished by her parents to a decrepit widows' house on the edge of the Ganges. Chuyia is left there sobbing, in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film, but she insists her parents will soon return for her.
Even as it becomes clear that they won't, Chuyia's spirited, rebellious streak shines through, and she begins to change the way the other widows in the house view the world, as the independence movement of Mahatma Gandhi swirls around them. Chuyia has a particularly powerful effect on two people: Shakuntula, who begins to question a Hindu faith that subjects women who have lost husbands to such degrading lives, and Kalyani, a beautiful young widow who has been forced into prostitution by the head of the widow house. As the film unfolds, Kalyani ignores the taboos to fall tragically in love with a handsome young Gandhi nationalist.
The sorrowful film is nonetheless a triumph of conscience over blind faith, and a powerful message about how much, and how little, has changed in India. "I think it's slightly naive for me to think that films make a difference," Mehta, the director, said in a telephone interview from Toronto, where she lives half the year, when she is not in New Delhi. "But what it can do is start a dialogue and provoke discussion."
The film has provoked far more than that. In January 2000, Mehta was forced to shut down production of Water in Varanasi, one of India's holy cities on the banks of the Ganges, after Hindu nationalists protested that the film was anti-Hindu. Some 500 demonstrators took to the streets, ransacked the set and burned Mehta in effigy. She appealed to the state government for help, but fearing more violence, local officials asked the film crew to leave.
"In retrospect," Mehta said in a director's statement that accompanies the release of the film, "Water reflected what was taking place in India in some form or other: the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and high intolerance for anything or anybody that viewed it with skepticism. Therefore, we were a soft and highly visible target."
Mehta was not able to resurrect Water until four years later, and only then in neighboring Sri Lanka, where she shot under a fake title, Full Moon, so as not attract attention. By then Mehta had to recast the main characters. Lisa Ray, one of India's top models, took the role of the beautiful young widow Kalyani, and Seema Biswas, known in India for her role in the movie Bandit Queen, plays Shakuntula. John Abraham, a Bollywood superstar, portrays Kalyani's forbidden lover. For Chuyia, Mehta auditioned 50 girls but chose Sarala, an eight-year-old from a tiny village on the Sri Lanka coast who had never before acted.