Water…a Film about India and Widowhood
But it’s filmed in Shri Lanka. Beautifully filmed with close-ups of a dreamy eyed girl (around 8) in the back of an oxen-pulled wagon. Her dark eyes, framed by long heavy dark hair, stare into watery distance. Inside the wagon is a corpse of a man who looks old enough to be her grandfather. We unquestionably assume he is her grandfather. We from the west do not marry children. Girls with dreamy eyes never consider they might be married to men old enough to be their grandfathers. We assume that marriage is not really marriage until it’s consummated.
The watery world is so beautiful. Then we see a pyre, burning beside the river. We assume the river is the Ganges. Then the girl’s hair is being cut off, next her head is shaved, next she is dressed in white, brought to a heavy door, let in and the door closes behind these people whom we assumed were her family.
Furious, terrified, she is cowed by a huge woman also in white. All the people in this compound are older women, all are dressed in white. Only one younger one is grinding something yellow. Soon this yellow powder is mixed with water into a paste. It is spread on the girl’s head. Tumeric, to cool the skin after the head is shaved. All the women have shaved heads. They are all windows. Some may have lived almost their entire lives here, we finally realize.
For a long time it is not at all clear how they survive, though there is one exceptionally beautiful and long-haired woman among these dessicated widows. She lives upstairs with a puppy. The puppy helps the newly arrived child to calm her terror, to begin to examine where and what she is consigned to. This beautiful, long-haried woman becomes her friend. We notice an elegantly dressed heavy-set woman standing outside the bars of the huge widow who must be the head of this enclosure. Soon, we are shocked to discover that the beautiful long-haired young woman is rowed across the river to assignations. She is a whore.
Though there is a script, the spare language and our ignorance make the experience of watching this film like a watery dream. The fact that there is a plot. There is a young educated man who encounters both the new widow girl and the beautiful widow whore. He befriends them and falls in love. In one brief image we watch the castrated pimp in “her.his” expensive colorful clothes waiting outside the balcony of a wealthy colonial home. We know by then that inside is the beautiful young widow with one of her customers.
It seems to take us forever to discover the horrors that lie in wait for the people in this film–for the beautiful whore, the young stalwart man who believes in freedom and justice and who loves her, his mother who wants him to marry the right kind of girl, and his father–his father who preys on young widows.
It is the late 1930s, the time of Ghandi’s rise to power. He has just been released from prison by the British. Toward the end of the film, after the beautiful widow and young man have fallen in love and met under an extraordinary tree, whose huge arms ripple out like a dark flowing river, we attend a rally to honor Ghandi. By now we are not so ignorant. We realize how desperately poor and repressed, how ground under the heel of colonialism (both British and Indian) are most of the Indian people. We believe for a brief moment that Ghandi will make a difference for these forsaken, outcast widows.
But the young girl will be the only one to escape. I will not reveal the shattering fate of the beautiful young widow-whore, nor of the many old women who have lived out their lives as the trashed, hidden away. Finally we begin to grasp how deceitful and cunning, how debased and needy, their lives are. The holy water of the river cannot wash away what has been done to them.
My empowered, elegant, learned, witty, beautiful women friends in the west do not really understand the degredation of these women. Yet we have just read in Poetry Magazine some Afghani landays, brief poems created by women, whispered on the phone, sung privately to each other The landays in the June 2013 issue of Poetry remind me of this movie “Water.” I recommend them both. They show how often women are repressed, thrown like fodder to the anger, desperation, desire of men. But also of women’s wily creativity, their desire and determination to be heard if only in whispers among themselves.
Two landays, gathered in danger to the writers:
I’ll make a tattoo from my lover’s blood
And shame every rose in the green garden.
The old goat seized a kiss from my pout
like tearing a piece of fat from a starving dog’s snout.