Water: Drenched in colonial benevolence
Octpber 5, 2005

With Vancouver Film Festival tickets in hand, the three of us waited in a ridiculously long queue to enter a film five-years in the making: Deepa Mehta’s Water. The hype has been intense because the original filming was shut down in India, forcing the production team to relocate in Sri Lanka.  No doubt, we thought, the long line-up represented the controversial stances Mehta has made in past films and we were eager to watch her newest installment in the ‘element series’ which included Fire (1996) and Earth (1998).  Unfortunately, we were sourly disappointed and at times offended with both the film and the embodied theatre experience.

 Water is set in colonial 1938 India. It follows the life of a recently widowed child, Chuyia (Sarala), who is sent to a widows’ ashram near the Ganges River in Varanasi. Chuyia befriends Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the resident beauty of the ashram, who falls in love with Narayan (John Abraham). Though marrying a widow was taboo in segments of Hindu society at this time, Narayan’s Ghandian thinking transgresses this boundary. However, their love is unable to blossom because of ironic plot twists and fateful circumstances.

Though the film attempts to illustrate issues facing women in late colonial India, Mehta falls into Orientalist imagery.  She endorses notions of ‘colonial benevolence’ that helped justify and rationalize the British administration of India. Imperialists (past and present) have used the plight of the ‘oppressed Eastern woman’ to justify their political and economic exploits.  Within the Indian context, sati (or widow burning), oppression of widows and child marriage were particularly isolated as examples of the backward nature of indigenous culture and the need for colonial intervention.  This rationale hinged on the idea that superior European morals were needed for a civilizing mission.  Of course we are not arguing that the traditional Hindu system is not discriminatory against women.  Mehta, however, simplifies its complexity and ignores how the ‘women’s cause’ was manipulated for the purposes of ruling.  Indeed first wave feminists also maintained a wounded attachment to, for example, sati to justify their need to be partners in the art of Empire as civilizing agents.  Mehta’s film does nothing to challenge this inherent tension in representing and perpetuating notions of victimized Indian women lacking any agency or means of resistance within the context of past and current imperialism.

Clearly the women of the ashram are represented as meek lambs who, due to the backward nature of Hindu tradition, are forced to lead impoverished, secluded and miserable lives.  They are seen, for example, begging for coins, being scolded by passers-by who fear being polluted, turning to prostitution for livelihood, sheepishly visiting a Brahmin priest to learn about their degraded incarnation as women, and so on.  The theme is simple: these women are incredibly vulnerable and hopeless. Although one character, Shakuntala (the strongest performance in the film played by Seema Biswas), begins to question her situation in the film, this avenue and her own agency are ultimately unexplored fully. We question why Mehta essentializes their positions as being merely that of ‘victim’ instead of struggling women.  We are not being apologists to certain Hindu conventions around widowhood; we are rather questioning why the lives of widows are represented as solely hopeless instead of active struggles for survival, for spiritual growth and for enlightened renunciation of material needs. Indeed the theme of prostitution exemplifies this shortcoming.

Mehta constructs widows as so vulnerable, they are coaxed and forced into prostitution.  Again, she denies the presence of agency: why does Kalyani’s life lead to an ultimate demise due to the shame surrounding prostitution? Why can Mehta not have a character that actively chooses to be a prostitute instead of leading a life in the ashram?

Though circumstance can lead women into professions they do not choose, Mehta emphasizes ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ as the roots for these situations and decontextualizes them from colonial dynamics.  This is irresponsible on the part of Mehta given how the image of victimized Eastern women has been used to justified imperialism.

Mehta further constructs a male savior as the route for redemption.  This role is filled by Narayan.  At one point in the film, Narayan and Kalyani discuss the changing nature of tradition, and how to retain ‘good’ traditions while casting away the ‘bad.’ When Narayan poses the question as to who will decide which traditions are to be kept and which ones are to be discarded, Kalyani answers, “you.”  Here we see a male, educated within the colonial system as a lawyer, come to save the tragic beauty from the backwardness of tradition; a male who, once again, holds decision-making power.  And indeed Gandhi occupies a similar position in the film: he is a colonial-educated lawyer who also comes as savior, preaching Hindu reform and national unity while also touching the heart of another ashram member, Shakuntala.  Both Narayan and Gandhi represent enlightened, educated men rescuing the oppressed from Hindu culture.

Mehta further represents this culture as static and unchanging.  The film closes with a statistic that claims 35 million widows exist in India and many still live in situations similar to those shown in the film.  The ‘many’ in this statistic is vague: in a country of more than one billion persons, ‘many’ can mean anything.  The result of the statistic, however, is to frame India as timeless and monolithic.  This almost invites intervention. Indeed, after the film, a Canadian audience-member asked what can he, living in Canada, do for ‘those’ women.

“What can we do?” What can you do? We think you have done enough, thank you. 

The question and answer period was an experience in itself.  We were in the presence of Deepa Mehta herself, who had changed her flight plans to make the screening.  She said her intention in making the movie was to “move people.”  Indeed the question ”What can we do for them from here?” appeared to validate this goal.  This question is the result of representing women as being so helpless and lacking any agency that they need outside help.Her story is crafted in such a way that no other responses except paternalistic concern can really be expected.  Luckily, Mehta replied that it is important first to fix “our world” before treading out to sea.

Another person asked how Mehta chose the cast.  We wish to focus on her justification for choosing Lisa Ray to play Kalyani.  Mehta specifically stated that she had selected her because she was ‘pure’ ‘fragile’ and ‘vulnerable.’  This characterization is clearly problematic as here Mehta is reinforcing the stereotype of docile, demure and pristine femininity as the ideal form of South Asian womanhood. Though it may be coincidence, there are problematic associations between Kalyani’s supposed purity and her very fair skin. Indeed, upon seeing Kalyani for the first time, Chuyia exclaims in awe that she is an ‘angel.’ It is no surprise that this fair-skinned beauty is also the coveted prostitute whose wages keep the ashram alive.  Mehta thus does not engage with existing feminist concerns around dominant conventions of beauty, colour and vulnerable feminine roles; rather, she reinforces them.

We nervously asked Mehta how she negotiates making a film about themes so easily adopted by the discourse of ‘benevolent colonialism’ in today’s context of imperialism where Eastern women’s causes are similarly manipulated.  She did not offer a real response, just that she felt we gave her an “essay on Edward Said.”  She then claimed that her film was not about colonialism but rather Hinduism and that has nothing to do with colonialism.  We were unimpressed: she made a period film set in colonial India, how can she claim that Hinduism practiced within that historical-political milieu is untouched by colonialism?

Perhaps this contradiction mediated our experience at the theatre itself.  Given our history as colonized people, sitting in a room with many, many white gazes again forced us to embody this historically subjugated experience within the politics of that theatre.  Throughout the showing of the film, we were bombarded with audience-members around us making “tsk-tsks” and sympathetic moans. In the act of making a film about colonial India, Mehta adopted the role of the ‘native informant’ who exposes to the Canadian audience the reality of our backward, static, traditional and timeless culture.  We thus occupied an awkward relationship in that room: though we were represented on film, many around us sounded like they wished to save us from ourselves.   In that space, we, like the characters in Mehta’s film, became subjects of colonial benevolence. 

Check out all our book, film and theatre reviews.

Home Features David and Goliath Stop smirking, Bettman Books this week Essays & Reviews The Big Sellout Operation Filmmaker Salud!

Word Up! Magazine