Movies about children in difficult situations destroy me. I’m still trying to forget I ever saw “Pan’s Labyrinth.” So when the little girl was getting her head shaved within the first five minutes of the 2005 Indian film “Water,” presented at the Library Auditorium by UVU’s Cinema Club, I prepared for a brutal viewing experience.
The head-shaving is part of a ritual Indian women undergo upon becoming widows. The little girl, eight-year-old Chuyia, played by Sarala, is then unceremoniously dumped by her parents into an ashram, a home for widows where they live in poverty and spend their lives performing religious rituals. Immediately she befriends the enchanting Kalyani, played by Lisa Ray, and clashes with the head widow Madhumati, played by Manorma. All this happens in 1938, during the height of Gandhi’s extraordinary spiritual reign.
After the thought of returning home to her parents becomes a distant memory for Chuyia, she settles into her new life as a widow. It is at this point that a chance encounter with handsome young law student Narayan, played by John Abraham, completely alters the fates of both Chuyia and Kalyani. Narayan is instantly smitten by Kalyani, who has been reduced to prostitution in order to support her fellow widows in the ashram. An educated follower of the teachings of Gandhi and other progressive Indian leaders, he longs to defy convention and marry the young widow.
I’ll stop there. What happens between these three is a spiritual and emotional journey that deserves to be experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. An indictment on a society which sees a woman without husbands as only half a person, this film also offers a strong argument against any overlap between church and state. Yet with many scenes shot with a strong contrast between dark and light, it manages to find beauty and warmth among pitiable circumstances.
A title card at the end of the film informs us, appallingly, that widows still live as second-class citizens in India, bound by the traditions shown in the film. Movies like “Water” are important to anyone who takes cinema seriously because they open eyes to these sorts of conditions, and they can be the catalyst for change. The Cinema Club’s next showing will be the German-language film “The Lives of Others,” on March 11. As always, admission will be free and the movie will begin at 7 p.m.