I saw an interesting movie last night. (Full disclosure: I was given a copy of the movie and asked to write about it. However, you can always trust me to be honest.)
"Water", written and directed by Deepa Mehta, is about a Hindu tradition that was practiced among the Brahmin (elite) caste in India. After a woman's husband died, her life effectively ended. She was forced to live in isolation with other widows, in conditions of poverty and deprivation.
As if this wasn't cruel enough, girls were often married off at the age of 7 or 8. It's not clear to me when these children were sent to live with their husbands, possibly when they reached puberty. But if the old men that they were pledged to marry happen to die, these girls of 7, 8, 9 years old were cast off from their families, to live the rest of their lives in joyless deprivation, in the company of old women who also had been sent away. A widow at the age of 7.
Like many traditional practices that oppress women, widowhood was given a religious rationalization, as if it were a practice commanded from a god. In reality, it was a tool of social control and economic convenience. The practice has been outlawed in India for some time, but - as if the case with so many oppressive traditions - it continues anyway, although I don't know how common it is.
"Water" takes place in the 1930s, at the cusp of Indian independence from British rule. It's visually gorgeous, and worth seeing if you're interested in India or in traditional societies, especially as that relates to women. There's a Romeo-and-Juliet love story grafted on, and some additional tragedy that felt gratuitous to me, but you might disagree with that. It's very sad - no Hollywood ending here - but Mehta leaves you with hope for the future.
The most interesting thing about "Water" might be how it was made. The filming drew violent protests from Hindu fundamentalists who - without seeing the movie, of course! - believed it to be anti-Hindu and anti-Indian. The movie set was destroyed, an effigy of Mehta was burned, there were death threats and bomb scares. Here's a good story about the protests.
Mehta was forced to abandon the project in India, but continued filming, in secret, on a new set in Sri Lanka. The movie opened the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim.
Is "Water" anti-Hindu? No more than "The Magdalene Sisters" is anti-Catholic. Oppression is oppression. It doesn't matter where it comes from; it has to be faced. Plus, anything that angers fundamentalists is worth seeing.
"Water" is the third movie in a trilogy by Mehta. I haven't seen "Earth" and "Fire", but I'm going to put them on my Ziplist now.