Chuyia (Sarala) is a young girl who at the age of eight becomes a widow and is consequently forced to live the rest of her life in a widow shelter. The director Deepa Mehta, uses Chuyia as an instigator who questions why she should live this way. At an age where nothing is remotely complicated, where the sky is either blue or black, or where every question seems to have just one answer, Chuyia makes her opinions clear about the widow situation early on in the movie. Her lively personality echoes the very comportment that is condoned in widows. One is also introduced to Kalyani and Shakuntala whose life experiences and compassionate personalities deeply affect the life of Chuyia. Kalyani is a young widow who epitomizes the religious corruption that exists in the shelter that she lives in.
To become a widow is to become ostracized, this is apparent in the way the widows in Water are treated by other members of the community. This segregation automatically secludes the widows into a distinct caste, perhaps one of the lowest there are in India. Throughout Water there is the constant visit to the river, the same river where Kalyani drowns herself and where people constantly bathe. Perhaps it is this river that serves as a representation for the dichotomy of life and death because parallel to religion, water can either destroy or replenish.
In Water the appearance of Kalyani is distinct from that of the other widows. Unlike the bald heads of her elders Kalyani has long hair and she is allowed to sleep in a special room. It is not long before one finds out that Kalyani is being sold to rich men for their sexual fulfillments. To sleep with a widow is considered to be an act of kindness, for they are unworthy of associating with those of a higher caste, and thus the touch of a rich man is considered to be a blessing. It is apparent that convenience has taken over what is morally right. One also learns that Kalyani hopes for a better life as she accepts the hand in marriage of a Gandhi follower Narayan (John Abraham), but at the same time the guilt for her past life betrays her. Water subsequently criticizes these Hindu beliefs and it is Kalyani’s fiancé Narayan (John Abraham), who tells Shakuntala that her situation has nothing to do with religion but with the lack of money. He says “One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money.” It is with these words that Shakuntala decides to send Chuyia away and prevent her from growing up in the widow shelter.
Most of the film is seen through the eyes of Chuyia; from the time when she first arrives screaming for her mother, to the time where she begins to accept her fate. In perceiving the film through the eyes of innocence, Deepa Mehta delivers an unquestionably candid personification of the injustice that the widows are forced to endure. Similar to Chuyia the audience for the most part is just being introduced to the situation of these widows, and as the film progresses both Chuyia and the audience seem to be at hand with what is happening.
Furthermore, the cinematography in this film evokes a sense of uncertainty. The lack of light and ambiguous, sometimes motionless backgrounds resonate the change that is taking place socially in India and in the lives of the widows. The image of a fleeting train is the image the audience sees as Water comes to and end; a vague appearance of its real structure. With this scene Deepa entails one to find imperfection in what is so often overlooked or ignored, even if it is questioning the sacred beliefs of one’s faith.