Both films play into the notion of Indian women as a monolith, trapped in social and religious traditions that are injurious for their physical, mental, and psychological well-being. Controlling the female body—starvation-level food intake for widows, sexual abstinence, restricted mobility—is mystified as exercises of tradition. Unfortunately, Mehta and Ramanathan fail to inform viewers that the social conventions depicted in their films do not reflect contemporary realities in modern India.

Historical research and ethnographic fieldwork guide both directors—Ramanthan in a Q&A after the screening mentioned that she had interviewed a 100-year-old devadasi in Tamil Nadu, and another who has since passed away.Water, shown at a special screening in Orange County, was followed by Lisa Ray (who plays the young widow Kalyani) remarking on her experience of living with widows in a vidhwa (widow) ashram. However, both filmmakers eschew the documentary film format for their work, choosing instead to write their own fictional scripts, which allow more room for artistic interpretation of historical material.

From watching the films one would think that the social customs portrayed remain frozen in the 1920s and 1930s. Water begins with a quotation from the Laws of Manu, part of Hindu scripture, about women being subjected to male authority throughout their lives—to father, husband, and sons—which is hardly the reality for many Indian women today. Viewers in 2006 are already set up to view a film where men control women’s lives, and this is presented as a timeless truism. Even if vidhwa ashrams still exist, and though the devadasi system no longer does, such historical facts need to be enacted with much more artistic responsibility and integrity than was evident in either film.

The fact that India is part of the vast South Asian subcontinent with many variations of social custom, religious practice, and cultural traditions remains invisible. Not that one film has to show all the complexities of India, but unfortunately there are very few South Asian representations in mainstream cinema. Hence, the few that make it to commercial distribution carry a burden of representation that, with all its artistic freedom, demands integrity and responsibility.

Leaving the auditorium after seeing Water, I was uncomfortable and angry to hear the predictable responses, such as, “These poor Indian women. Thank God we live in America.”

The troubling binary of tradition vs. modernity raises its ugly head again. Let us all become modern since tradition is so backward. Neither tradition nor modernity are monoliths and need to be analyzed in their specific historic time and location.

A sense of timelessness pervades the lush landscapes and beautiful female bodies in Sringaram and Water, and lulls the viewer into false consciousness of the backwardness, yet again, of the brown woman who needs to be rescued by modernity and progress.

Tradition is a much-debated concept where culture and politics are intertwined inextricably, especially in portraying women’s bodies, both their physical beauty as well as hardships of unjust social customs. Abstinences of food, clothing, jewelry, and premature aging sadly mar the faces of widows in Mehta’s film. The women’s bodies have to be emptied as it were of sexual desire. But younger widows’ bodies are prostituted, as socially sanctioned since that provides older widows’ upkeep. Youthful Kalyani with long hair (a mark of sexuality, whereas most widows have to shave off their hair) is taken across the river for sexual services to a wealthy customer. A sentimental touch is added when Kalyani is the one who pays for an old widow’s funeral.

In Sringaram, the local landlord, Mirasu, “owns” the devadasi Madhura’s body. She is under his patronage (bondage) as was her mother. Mirasu enables them to live comfortably with food, clothing, jewelry, even a certain affluence, albeit highly vulnerable and dependent on keeping him satisfied with their physical beauty and sexual availability. The many contradictions of how women’s sexuality is used and abused are represented without adequate criticism. Madhura, as enjoined by tradition, is as much in bodily rapture, and passionate in her dance, as she is during the socially required intimacy with Mirasu. Even her mother comments on how that intimacy makes her face glow. Is this use of a woman’s body a fair exchange for male patronage especially when sanctioned by tradition?

There is a voyeuristic quality in displaying the female body, whether in the widow’s white sari (that, softly lit, looks visually stunning) or in the devadasi’s finery and ornate jewelry. The gaze, whether the filmmakers’ (both are of Indian ancestry—Mehta, born in Delhi, lives in Canada since 1973, and Ramanathan lives in Chennai) or the foreign audience’s is lured and lulled by the heroines’ physical beauty, and by the visual allure of serene landscapes in Water, and sonorous Karnatik music in Sringaram.

Female resistance to oppression comes across as sentimental and romanticized at best, and unconvincing and self-destructive at worst. Mehta notes the economics behind the tradition of vidhwa ashrams—namely, poor families give up a widow rather than feed another mouth. Widow re-marriage is mentioned as a recent social reform though mostly ignored in practice. The idealistic hero, Narayan (played by John Abraham), a Gandhian, wants to challenge unfair traditions; however, he can only actualize his idealism by falling in love with the attractive Kalyani, and offering to marry her. This is aborted by circumstances and not only is he unable to “rescue” one widow out of her unfair confinement, but he fails her so miserably that she commits suicide.

Sringaram presents the Mirasu’s wife as a strong woman though she has to put up with her husband’s socially sanctioned dalliances with the devadasi implying that as a wife, she cannot be passionate, and offer bodily pleasure as the “other woman” can. Although the wife challenges Mirasu’s demand that she leave town with him, this standing up for herself is hardly believable since she has been silent though angry about her husband’s infidelity throughout the film.

Women’s agency is certainly crucial in challenging unfair social customs. However, two significant questions remain: is it enough to resist, whatever the outcome? And why is resistance glorified even when the outcome is destructive, or self-destructive for the women? I consider it highly problematic when the outcome of resistance is self-destruction—suicide, marginalization, or exile from their communities—as is often the result of women speaking up or acting against social norms. Melodrama haunts both films—in Water, suicide, aborted romance, and child sexual abuse; in Sringaram, death by hanging, death in childbirth, neglect of Mirasu’s wife’s sexuality since she is abandoned by a husband dallying with Madhura.

Water, since its screening as the opening night feature at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2005 and its premier in New York and Los Angeles in April 2006 has received high praise from reviewers. I regard their waxing eloquent over Mehta’s craft as deeply problematic since they praise the portrayal of what they like to believe is the reality for women in backward Third World cultures. Kevin Thomas notes (Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2006), “The film seethes with anger over their (widows’) position, yet never judges and possesses a lyrical, poetic quality.” This “lyrical and poetic quality,” the lush landscape scenes shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, satisfies the audience’s visual palate though the beautiful images conceal the widows’ poor diet and near-starvation enjoined by religious strictures.

Water was shot in Sri Lanka in 2004 under a fake name since Mehta’s initial shooting in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganga, where several widows live, was attacked and aborted by inflamed Hindu fundamentalists. I certainly object to these attacks. Artists have the autonomy (and responsibility) to explore controversial social issues. My concerns are not that Mehta portrays widows, but rather with how this representation comes across.

Both Water and Sringaram raise important questions about being trapped in traditions, and about resisting social customs particularly detrimental to women’s bodies and psyches. But these lush representations on film unfortunately appear timeless and ahistorical, leaving the audience ignorant about social changes in the last several decades, and feeling hopeless about the injustices that these women face.
Ketu H. Katrak is a professor at the Department of Asian American Studies, University of California, Irvine.