Deepa Mehta’s “​Water” and Homegrown Indian Feminism by Amy Levin

In the first scene of the Deepa Mehta’s 2005 Indian film Water, a father tells his eight year old daughter, Chuyia, “Child. Do you remember getting married? Your husband is dead. You’re a widow now.”  These are some of the last words Chuyia hears from anyone familiar to her, as her condition abandons her in an ashram for Hindu widows to spend the rest of her life in renunciation. Chuyia, failing to realize her condition upon arrival, enters the ashram innocent and naive, as the elderly widows surround her and one proceeds shave her soft head.  Watching Chuyia begin to understand her circumstance as she terrifyingly runs for escape screaming for her family, one can only feel a tragic catharsis watching an eight year old being sentenced to life in prison for a “crime” she did not commit. The ideas and criticisms that come to one’s mind are undoubtedly what writer and director, Deepa Mehta, aimed to evoke – injustice, patriarchy, and oppression by way of religion. 

As the film progresses we see simultaneously the progression of the relationship between Chuyia and a beautiful widow in her twenties, Kalyani, who forbiddingly falls in love with Narayana, a high-caste Ghandhian. Through these relationships, the film unfolds the historical context of the time and implicitly criticizes some of the Indian traditions that have been linked to injustice of Indian women. The one agreement among audiences concerning this film is its efficacy in portraying the horrible condition of low class, female Hindu widows.  However, the point of contention enters the discourse when it comes to audience reaction.  Just two days into shooting the film, a mob representing an extremist nationalist Hindu group destroyed the film’s set, claiming that it was an “organised plot by the Christian church against Hinduism.”  Furthermore, the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Forum, claimed that the “film’s script ‘smacks of the conspiracy by the votaries of Western culture to tarnish the image of widowhood in India.’’  Thus, a message aimed to address change and progressive equality, for some, is purely a representation of the demonic “West.”

What the film and its extreme reaction have in common is the ways in which women’s oppression takes discreet shape, and the fact that these practices exist through complex psychological, political, social, and religious mentalities today.  During a scene in Water, Bhagavati, the mother of Narayan, a Gandhian who wants to marry Kalyani, says to her son regarding Chuyia, “God willing she’ll be reborn as a man.” What Mehta is trying to convey is the reactionary sentiment of many Indian women that acknowledges a ubiquity of Indian patriarchy and the injustice it entails for women.  Though the film is set in 1938, the sentiment that Indian feminism is either barely visible or a mimicry of Western feminism is still prevalent in much of the public rhetoric. However, as most transnational feminists argue, feminism is not by any means an inherently or exclusively Western idea. In fact, many scholars argue that feminism “evolved” separately in the “East” as it did in the “West,” what Uma Narayan claims is a type of “convergent evolution.”

Narayan claims that she inhabits both an Eastern and Western understanding of feminism, as she identifies as a Third World feminist who has lived a number of years in the West.   In her article on “Contesting Cultures”Narayan identifies and refutes the reasons for Third World feminist backlash in India. Combating the argument that feminism in India is merely Western, she claims, “. . .for many Third World feminists, their feminists consciousness is not a hot-house bloom grown in the arid atmosphere of ‘foreign’ ideas, but has its roots much closer to home.”  Narayan claims that her feminism grew out of personal experience as an Indian female, and strongly influenced by her mother and grandmother.  Not only are the roots of Narayan’s feminism found within her family line, but they grew out of experience with other Indian women as well.  However, while Narayan acknowledges the similitude of feminist activity between the East and the West, she makes explicit the distinction between Indian feminism as a pure emulation of the West and the stark yet tragic similarity that both contexts allow for women’s inequality.

One of my favorite books tackling the relationship between the Goddess and Indian politics is found in Kathleen Erndl’s book, Is the Goddess a Feminist? Erndl discusses her conception of feminist religious practices, questioning the relationship between Hindu Goddesses and women’s well-being in India. For example, Erndl argues that Indian woman involved in various women’s organizations that supports economic, educational, and social opportunities for women and challenges the sacred aspect of marriage for women. Many of these organizations attribute their work to the influence of the Goddess in their lives. Furthermore, this Goddess feminism is distinctly non-Western, “. . .for she is illiterate and has had virtually no exposure to Western ideas.”  Thus, as Erndl argues, Goddess worship and shakti, the female power of life and death in Hinduism, acts as a source of empowerment for women. However, Erndl does acknowledge the angle of manipulation of these practices to serve the patriarchal culture. Some argue that “shakti-related phenomena such as Goddess possession of women gurus are safety valves which ultimately function to preserve the patriarchal system. The idea that women (and other disadvantaged people) engage in religious practices and experience spiritual empowerment as a kind of consolation prize for losing status in the ‘real world.’” This argument is extremely convincing to me, and I imagine other feminists as well, but that does not mean that this Goddess is not a “feminist” per se.  Though a Western feminist, Erndl poses an alternative to bring about feminism that is characteristically “Hindu” in order to satisfy both religion and women. She claims that “. . .the task for Hindu feminists, on an ideological level, is to rescue shakti from its patriarchal prison.” Given this emerging scholarship, provocative media, and ongoing globalization affecting Indian women, I think it’s important to recognize feminism in India is both necessary and organically “Indian.”

Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.

16 thoughts on “Deepa Mehta’s “​Water” and Homegrown Indian Feminism by Amy Levin”

  1. I have seen the film ‘Water’, quite a while back now. Surely the eight year old, Chuyia, wasn’t imprisoned/placed in confinement for ‘murdering’ her husband, as described in the introductory paragraph. (Though her ‘husband’ might have been ‘murdered’), the point was simply that, since he had died and she was now a widower and was therefore unavailable to other men to marry – the context that led to her confinement/imprisonment. While I agree with your sentiment that Mehta aimed to reveal the extreme injustices done to women (foiled by the reactionary sentiments of Indian women) evolving independently in the East, it is important to state the context of your discussion very clearly at the outset in order to state the insistence of patriarchal values in India.


    1. Annabelle – I apologize. You are of course correct that Chuyia was not in for murdering her husband. In fact, I’m not quite sure if we know how he dies, but he is very old. My wording was very unclear. I was getting at the sentiment of what a viewer might feel at that kind of injustice, and how catharsis can be a powerful bodily affect that helps form one’s political sentiments. I meant it more as a metaphor – the viewer feels the injustice of a innocent murderer, trapped in a prison forever. Thank you for pointing this out!


  2. Thank you Amy for your sensitive and in-depth presentation of some historical, social, multi-religious, and personal conditions that affect the oppression of women in India, and how such a complex topic is so easily distorted and essentialized by academics in the West (or the so called First World). I agree with you especially when you almost point out to the lack of humility, or intellectual openness, in some Western feminists who assume to “understand” such a rich and multi-layered culture, even from the perspective of what Edward Hall called a low-context culture. Because in the West, many do not even possess the language or cognitive tools to comprehend the ways in which the complexity that the Goddesses/Gods Indian spirituality has woven its way into the many Indian cultures and Indian women’s feminist practices and epistemes.

    Vasudha Narayan, Director of Religious Studies at the University of Florida, Gainesville, brilliantly addresses some of this epistemic disconnect in her essay “Brimming with Bhakti, Embodiments of Shakti: Devotees, Deities, Performers, Reformers, and Other Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition,” (Essay in “Feminism and World Religions” by Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young, editors).

    It is sad for me to see how much Western feminists and Hindu women raised in progressive India (informed by Western adoring sentiments) miss about going deeper into this culture where even the name of the country, India, was a foreign construct, not to mention the term Hindu, another Western label/invention that is a shallow term to define an extremely individualized multi-systems art and science of spirituality.

    Indian Feminism not only beings with Goddess mysticism through embodied spirituality, it has never disappeared, there have always been men and women who adore the Goddess and influence other people of any gender in positive and dharmic ways.

    As a Western born Indian panentheist and nondualist (follower of Kevala Adwaita), from previous lives surely Indian woman or, who knows if man, many times around, who recognizes how many academic branches are still emerging, informed by Indian philosophies (the list is too long to bring up as more grants and Indian derived theories akin to deconstruction keep emerging, but I may write about this in the future), I wish some feminists in the West, especially in this very young country (US), were more open to the Wealth, Power, Love, and Generosity that we can imbibe and receive by appreciating and going deeper into the study of the Goddesses/Gods traditions of India. A little intellectual humility from the part of “First World” feminists could help us open so many more doors yet to be explored on this fertile Goddess conversation.


    1. Thank you so much for this response – I’m so humbled! I really could have gone on longer about the discussion of colonialism, religion, and feminism (as you’ve brought up) and the Western feminist episteme is one I so worried about during my time abroad in India. I think I will write a post soon on my research on a shakti temple, because it brings us exactly the issues you raise and I would love to have more of a discussion of the complexity of Goddess spirituality. I agree with you that “First World” feminists should harbor more intellectual humility – I also go to Gayatri Spivak’s essay on epistemic violence towards “Third World Women.” Thank you again for you response!


  3. “The women of India are living in utter slavery; their slavery is double. (Osho)

    I have recently revisited some discourses by Osho and this quote by him, about women in India moved me recently, to explore this partially here, in relation to Tantra:

    Last year an independent study placed India in top five countries t in the world, as the worst place for women.

    Incidentally there is a “50 Million Missing” global campaign to stop India’s female genocide today:


  4. I must add that I do not agree with all the Western biased characterization of child marriage as a corrupt practice, or even as an only Indian practice (many princesses and other girls in the West had their marriages arranged in much more covert ways by their influential parents with the boy child of another influential family), and as moral decadence sets in the mores of the times, in a a country which some claim has a spiritual tradition which dates over thirty thousand years, there were surely other social epistemologies where even child marriage could have been a custom that emerged in the context of a meaning of a greater love quite difficult to understand in the context of our present deep seated individualistic epistemes. If Western academics were more prone to instrospection and self-analysis (finding the error within) rather than so quickly pointing out to the error in another culture, we could be talking about learning what is good and understanding what is not, and many more local evils of colonialism, egoic/individualism, bottomless greed would have been averted, and in the we (Westerners) would not have created the First World of self-destruction.

    This would be a much more positive and generative application of Western religions for the good of humanity. Married to wars for profit, Western religions have taken men and women in the West down a dangerous epistemic and ontological narrow road.

    Thank you for this forum and to all of you, for allowing me to vent some of my righteous indignation, and Kali Durga consumming fires of anger at Western uncivilization.
    Yours in Goddess, V


  5. Fascinating–both Amy’s essay and Vrindajamunashakti’s two comments. This is obviously a complex and highly charged topic. Let’s hope East and West come to understand each other, even if only in small ways.


  6. I think you can safely argue that patriarchy and all its horrors is a truly global phenomenon. You can argue about women in the U.S. being complicite in the wars the U.S. wages all over the world, and especially if women are married to men who manufacture Drone airplanes, bombs, or even women married to men who go to war and rape and kill women overseas. Complicite in voluntarily marrying murderers.

    You could argue that all countries treat women like dirt, and that it is a tactic of western patriarchy to pit Indian women against American women…. men gloatingly say “Well you could have it a lot worse in Afghanistan”– the religious right wing men say this all the time, acting like THEY are enlightened supporters of women. We all know what utter lies these are.

    Indian women have their own feminist movement, and even western lesbians have long admired the goddess Kali as a kind of power against male supremacy itself.

    When I lived in different countries, I always found the radicalism of women everywhere, even as male observers saw nothing but oppressed people.

    Indian women have fought their own battles for freedom, and I think we need to take a hard look at the so-called “choices” western women make to aid and abet patriarchs in their own lands. Marriage itself is a complete horror story no matter what country it takes place in. Women marry these oppressors, rapists and patriarchs all the time…. they are married to the dreadful sexist men I work with, and think nothing of it.

    There is no place on earth where women are free of male domination. No country that women own and run, not even a large city where women control the entire city. Nowhere! I think we all need to be aware that women all over the world keep patriarchy up and running in a variety of ways, and you could argue that the end result is just as bad everywhere. Women support the U.S. military and all its destructive power. Indian women support the system they are in. It’s why patrirachy is one of the most evil forces on earth, and women smilingly go along with all of it.


  7. I’ve been reading the Goddess mythology of India for years now, traveled to India in the 1970s, and am aware of how utterly complex the country of India and her religions are (if we have to use the term Hinduism, then we should call these religions HinduismS, they are so diferent). There are 2,000 different dialects and over 200 different LANGUAGES there. That’s a lot of diversity.

    At the Matriarchal Studies conference in San Francisco last May, I heard a young woman from Kerala talk about the changes that have taken place in her part of India over the last two generations. She talked about her grandmothers’ generation and how they had a very real form of matrifocality (what European feminists and others are now calling matriarchy). I think we in the West could learn a lot about egalitarian society from these Keralan women. And I know I can still learn a lot from the Goddess mythology of the subcontinent.


    1. The woman did not speak about one aspect of keralite matriarchy. It is possible she does not know about it or has not experienced it.
      Women made the decisions in matriarchy and the property passed to the daughters but men found a way to dominate here as well.
      There are actual statistics that support what I’m about to say.
      Many women who are not so well-off find themselves with no guys wanting to marry them and are then mocked by society. That’s cause they don’t have anything significant their husbands can enjoy(by way of wealth).
      The matriarchal system today is disappearing very fast and patriarchy is setting in in these places. In the past the men would manage everything from behind the scenes while today they are abandoning all pretence.


  8. A book I love and teach is Tracy Pintchman, ed. Women’s Rituals, Women’s Lives in Hindu Tradition. It provides an interesting view of women’s religous agency, in a religion with very different structures and strictures than Christianity and Judaism.


    1. Wow, thank you Carol. I really need to look up Pintchman’s book. Just from your brief description it reminds me of Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety in terms of the discussion on “non-Western” modes of religious agency.


  9. PS Knowing women who were in arranged and forced marriages in Greece, who have told me that every single sexual act of their marriage felt like rape, I have a hard time believing that any forced marriage or any child marriage (where consent is not a meaningful term) is a good thing.


  10. I loved Is the Goddess a Feminist? A nice collection of essays from different perspectives (it’s edited by Erndl, rather than being by her).

    As I said in my review of it (see my web site) I was expecting the answer to the question to be “No”, because of the argument that worship of goddesses does not seem to lead to high status for women, but found that it was “Yes, on the whole”.


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