Tinted Lens: Musings on culture and beyond

Mehta’s “Water” as analogy of cultural un-conditiong

Posted in Feminism, Semiotics, Uncategorized by interculturaljournal on March 1, 2011

Who never alters his opinions is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.
William Blake

A few years ago, while watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), I found his depiction of women quite remarkable; they were more like one-dimensional dolls with a lot of makeup on. In fact, they somehow managed to wake up looking that way! In this instance, Lynch only presented women naturally (i.e. not made up) when they were supposed to be unwell. Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005) is a stark contrast to Lynch’s film. Her characters are complex with multifaceted personalities.

The film offers a view of India 70 years ago. According to ancient tradition, a Hindu widow had one of three choices: to join her husband on his funeral pyre (i.e. to be burned); to marry his younger brother, if available; or retire to an ashram (refuge). There, she would live a life of self-denial and relative isolation.

The movie opens with Chuyia, a child bride who finds herself widowed at the age of eight. She is then forced into as ashram in Varanasi — one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. Her entrance provides a different “gaze” altogether, that of an innocent child.

Chuyia is a spirited little girl. She quickly creates reverberations in the otherwise still waters of her new home. One of the women she meets, Kalyani (played by Lisa Ray), is the “Ashram’s jewel.” We discover soon after that she had been resorting to prostitution to alleviate the crushing poverty for the inhabitants of the ashram.

Mehta weaves Kalyani’s character into a complex tapestry of beauty. However, Narayan, the young man she meets and falls in love with (thanks to Chuyia), does not initially appreciate this.

Narayan is an unconventional man. Although of a high cast, he is willing to break with tradition and oppose his family to marry a widow. However, things take a different turn when Kalyani’s life as a prostitute is uncovered, along the association between her and Narayan’s father. Narayan is crushed.

The movie then culminates in a scene where, hopeless and shamed, Kalyani drowns herself in a final act of purification.

Water is a major component of the movie with numerous scenes by the holy river Ganges throughout, and it is easily interpreted as representing tradition.

Tradition is key in shaping our perception of both our inner and outer worlds. What comes into the foreground vs the background, and how we interpret what we see is mediated in large part by this cultural conditioning. Over time, concepts of right, wrong, pureness, or ugliness become so common sensical, they are seldom challenged.

However, I think of Water here has the opposite of tradition. Water shape-shifts, from solid to liquid to vapour, and in so doing re-purifies itself. Similarly, water refreshes the faculties of perception allowing them to be less laden with imprinting.   It can therefore be an analogy for the ongoing process of un-learning/re-learning, which requires an open mind and a persistent willingness to shift perspectives, while keeping one’s feet grounded (i.e. not “throwing the baby out with the bath water”).

Going back to the film, it is noteworthy that Kalyani manages to maintain her inner calm and sense of well-being, even as she prostitutes. Perhaps this is because she does not perceive or accept to define herself as society would.

Where she loses her balance is when she adopts an external projection of who she is, as her beloved supposedly sees her. By doing so, she relinquishes her self, and is subsequently washed away.