We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Water_ and _The Quiet_: 2 films by women · 10 September 06

Dear Harriet,

I never wrote you about the most memorable film Yvette and I saw this past summer, Deepa Mehta’s Water. Prompted by having gone alone to see Jamie Babbit’s The Quiet and having felt disturbed by how falsely it has been described in ads, I’d like to compare the tabooed matter of Water to the tabooed matter of The Quiet.

Water was the cause of manufactured riots in India because it made visible the cruel and hypocritical way widows may still be treated there, and by extension criticized effectively how women are exploited sexually and coerced into accepting the lives of animals. I don’t know if no one is going to see The Quiet because the ads are lying about it or erasing it altogether (on IMDB it was not reported to be playing in the theatre I saw it at) and people don’t want to see the story of a disabled girl or because word-of-mouth has made potential viewers aware the story makes visible the sickness of hidden incestuous sex forced on a daughter by her father. Why is a story which brings us close to a male acting horribly not castigated or vilified (in the way of Water), but rather ignored and misrepresented?

In Water, through the story of a very young girl married off to a very old man who dies, and is then put in a widow’s house, Mehta leads the viewer to feel intense pity and sympathy for the women who are consigned (in effect imprisoned) in such places. As the film begins, the girl’s head is shaved to the point of near baldness; she is swathed in a white garment and handed over to women who proceed to teach her to live on very little food and spend her days doing and learning nothing except to serve like a slave the older and more powerful women in the house until such time as she is old enough to be sent out secretly to make money for them as a prostitute. We see how ignorant all the women are kept, and how hypocritical is the attitude of everyone outside the house towards the women inside. The pretense is the widows’ house is a place of piety, peace, chastity, when it is a place of petty tyranny, misery, and exploitation.

The horrible throwing away of lives and abuse of women’s bodies is caught up in the story of the young girl towards the end of the film when she is taken away to service an very old satyr-like rich man. The enormously heavy head of the house, a woman presented as an epitome of self-centered egoism and appetite, sends off one of her sycophantic sneaks with this child as the house is desperate for money. The one beautiful, playfully sweet teenage girl they had been selling has committed suicide by drowning after she found herself unable to take up a proposal of marriage by a young man. His family despises her and she looks upon herself as a shamed thing. The one woman in the house who we grow to respect and to like, a woman who is kind, sane, not frivolous and petty, not superstitious and works to help others, Sadananda (played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda) is appalled and terrified for the child when she finds her gone, runs after her, but the child has been raped. She finds the child curled up, limp and terrified, in the bottom of an old boat by the water. At this point I burst into tears—as did Kharbanda, as she gathered the child up, hugged her and kissed her and fled away with her.

I cannot convey the sense of horror Kharbanda communicates to the viewer when she comes upon the child. I had seen the child taken to a luxurious house and bedroom and seen a satyr-like old man in the bed. It took a minute or so for it to register in my mind what lay ahead for the child. I saw the sycophant take money, and then was so horrified, it was all I could do to sit in my seat. I began to dread I would be shown sex between the man and child. I forgot this was actually at least the second time the child had been used this way by an old man.

Sadananda whose life has been a wasteland finds herself at a train station where people are gathered to worship Ghandi. He is the great saviour (the scene is ironic as the viewer is expected to know Ghandi’s attitude towards women and sex). Sadananda begins to run alongside the train to try to find someone who will rescue the child, and finds the same young man who tried to marry the now dead teenager. He scoops the child up and promises to "save" her. The cry the film ends with is Sadanda’s
"Save her! Save her!" The viewer is left watching Sadananda’s noble face anguished and now all alone (she had taken some pleasure from the child’s innocent company). It is too late for her. She must carry on living this death-in-life.

About this film, Fran posted a link to an essay by Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan where we learn about the extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances of making the film, the violent threats the actresses were subjected to. Things were so bad that the production was secretly transferred to
Sri Lanka instead of Varanasi where such houses still exist & finished with a different cast. Yuen-Carrucan writes: "Water, is a film about Indian widows in the 1930s. In the past and present, many women whose husbands have died are forced to enter ‘widow houses.’ Labeled as worthless without a husband to measure themselves by, they struggle to survive by begging and often turn to prostitution. It happened in the ‘30s and is still happening today."

About The Quiet, the just about universally deceitful advertisements imply it’s about a deaf dumb girl, Dot (Camille Belle), who bonds with another girl, Nina (Elisha Cuthbert), in a house Dot is sent to live in after Dot’s father dies. We are led to expect the film’s focus is Dot’s difficulty adjusting to a hearing noisy world. There are some evasive descriptions on IMDB.

The Quiet is about Nina’s father, Paul (Martin Donovan) who is sexually abusing his daughter, Nina, nightly in the quiet having sex with her, of which nightly trysts, her mother and his wife, Olivia (Edie Falco) is well aware but turns a blind eye. The same horror as I felt in watching Water was gradually evoked as I gradually realized what was going on in this house, with the significant difference that I was not meant to like or particularly sympathize with the mother or daughter or disabled girl until the very last minutes of the film.

As the film begins Nina is presented as a cruel, nasty, bitchy sexy
and vengeful teenager who is riveted with resentment when her father and mother take into their house a sullen, isolated, and plain deaf and dumb girl, Dot. Dot can apparently read lips, but no more. She brings with her a bag of ashes which represent her father’s cremated remains. Nina has a side-kick, Michelle (Katy Mixon) who is, if this is possible, even crueller, nastier, bitchier and sexier than Nina. They use curse and sexual language constantly, talking of how they long to fuck and be fucked. I was tempted to leave right away, but could see that the film did not endorse this behavior; rather it presented it as a norm and wanted me to be repelled. I was.

Nina appears to have the nicest of fathers, Paul, who is trying to control her and is having a hard time because his wife, Olivia, indulges her because she is following modern notions of giving young adults autonomy and respect. Olivia undermines his authority he says. Olivia also takes pills to make her sleep, and is apparently unable or unwilling to have sex with Paul at night. She is an interior decorator whose profession seems to cost more than it brings in. We sympathize with the long-suffering husband.

Nina begins to use Dot as an emotional punching bag. She cruelly smears crass red lipstick all over Dot’s lips. She taunts her. One night at the cinema, Nina appears to weaken with some guilt though and goes home early to discover Dot playing the piano and suddenly emitting a word, "Shit" when Dot makes a mistake. Ah. Dot can hear and speak. So Nina goes over to her and begins to tell her what seem to be hideous stories about Nina’s father having sex with Nina nightly; Nina says she hates her father and plans to murder him tonight. The viewer is inclined to see this as more spite and feel sorry for Dot who is clearly at first frightened for the father. That night Dot creeps downstairs to Nina’s room and listens outside the door and the viewer is given a glimpse of a scene where the father is having sex with the daughter. I thought at first (you are supposed to think this) Dot imagined this because of the story she had been told, but gradually, as several such scenes follow, I became aware that indeed this man had been forcing sex on his daughter for quite some time.

I felt the same strong revulsion I had in Water when the young girl child was brought to the old man, only this time I didn’t burst into tears on Nina’s behalf. Nina wasn’t innocent; she wasn’t sweet. She was awful. And save her? For what?

An ugly subplot shows Nina’s friend, Michelle running after a young man who is not a basketball star. He loses games, but he plays. Michelle wants to fuck him (she says), but he begins to haunt the girl who is withdrawn and hard to get, Dot. In a scene shortly after Nina tells Dot Nina’s father has sex with her, we see Dot allow the young man to have sex with her (Dot) the way Nina described her father and Nina doing it. But later in the lunch room in the high school, Dot tries to avoid this young man, and towards the end of the movie, when he finds out she can speak as well as hear, he turns on her and vilifies her because he too was tempted to take advantage of her supposed dumbness and tell of sex acts he dreams of or has done on himself (masturbation).

Slowly a new perspective opens out. Nina is so hateful to her father and mother and everyone because she is being treated hatefully. I noticed that Elisha Cuthbert began to be dressed less sexily and with less make-up as my sympathies for her were aroused. Nina makes attempts to befriend Dot, only she cannot control her rage. So we see them sleeping like friends together, and then Nina takes a steaming hot iron and singes a teddy bear Dot values until it’s a black-ruin. The next night though Nina again gets into bed with Dot, and they hug one another. We get a scene between the father and mother where Olivia tries to get Paul to go to bed with her and he is turned off by her older woman’s aging haggish body.

Nina is indeed tempted to destroy the father. She has been contemptuous of his and her mother’s authority all along (understandably). On the night before a dance Dot and Nina are to go to, Nina has a steaming hot iron in her hand in one scene and is sorely tempted to scar his face, or lips, or burn his genitals. In a previous scene she had told her father she is pregnant by him, and wrenches $1000 in cash from him to pay for an abortion. Now she is waiting for the money so she can run away. She has absurd dreams about setting up a career "far away" (far away is Connecticut).

The lie about the pregnancy precipitates the film’s climax. On the night of the dance, the father discovers Nina is lying by finding tampons in the expensive handbag he had just bought Nina. He shouts at her, berating her, calling her whore and cursing her. He then decides he wants to have sex with her right then as a punishment and because he feels like it, and begins to strip her, and in effect rape her, as she desperately tries to escape him. The noise of the quarrel can be heard all over the house.

It’s then the camera shows us the mother has been complicit all along. We see her listening as she watches TV below. She pops another pill—ah so that’s why she puts herself out nightly. And she draws closer to the TV.

Dot is playing the piano downstairs. Yes the film is a neurotic half-mad nightmare with surreal scenes. She pulls a piano wire out of her piano and rushes up to the bedroom where the rape is taking place, hurls herself on Paul, and proceeds to pull him off Nina by the wire, strangling him (deliberately) in the process. He is bloodied all over and dies quickly. They fling his corpse on the floor as the mother comes into the room.

The girls were to go to a dance and go anyway. They leave early and we see them take a backpack they have been exchanging and bury it deep in a swamp together. It contains the bloodied shirt, dresses, and evidence of who killed the man. Then the two of them hold hands and walk side-by-side into a stream. Dot begins to talk. We learn that she began to pretend to be deaf and dumb after her mother died when she was 7. We knew her father was deaf and dumb, and that she blamed herself for his death. We see her early in the film thinking of how had she accompanied him to the store the afternoon a truck destroyed him, she would have seen (or heard?) the truck and saved him. Dot now tells Nina that her pretended deafness and dumbness became a kind of game, a secret between her father and she that comforted them both as it kept them together.

Last scene: the girls come back to the luxurious rich person’s house Paul has provided for his wife and daughter, and find police everywhere. Olivia, the mother, comes out handcuffed. She comes over to the girls in what we realize as we watch is a pre-planned scene. She asks for their pardon and says she has killed Nina’s father. Her story is that Paul was beating her once again. It doesn’t ring true, but no matter, she may well end up in prison for life. The girls, now sisters, pass into the house, and sit down at the piano and Dot begins to teach Nina how to play.

We hear Dot’s overvoice (as we have throughout the film) saying words to the effect that invisibility and silence may shelter you but they also isolate and endanger you. Yet Dot has (as Nina says at one point) emerged as the true strong one in the family.

What are we to make of this film, Marianne? One theme I’ve come across in George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil. In that gothic story, the central character magically knows what is going on in other people’s minds. They think he is an imbecile and tell him their crude and cruel thoughts. Silence is not power but powerlessness and vulnerability. In some of the scenes where people tell Dot their hidden thoughts I thought of the film adaptation of Austen’s Persuasion, where, following the novel, the characters all tell Anne how they hate or resent other characters and complain about one another to her. She begins to take on the burden of their misery, takes in their wretchedness into her soul and her face looks haggard.

The Quiet was directed and produced by 2 women and written by 2 more women, Abdi Nazemian and Micah Schraft. Deepa Mehta writes her own scripts (as in a companion film, Fire). Of course the center of both films is an older man abusing a much younger woman sexually and the hidden things that go on in quiet houses that no one admits to. In Water we see beautiful elements in the characters of the teenager who kills herself, the child, the young man, and Sadananda. In The Quiet, if there are any such incipient qualities for kindness and integrity in Dot, Nina, Olivia, Paul, or the young man Dot becomes briefly involved with, they are fleeting. Theirs is a culture where if someone turns to someone else, they are jeered at as "needy" (Nina uses this word of her father on the phone). We are to sympathize with the two girls and the mother, but only just. I expect some men might sympathize with the father or dislike the director’s approach. Overall most of the behavior of the characters in The Quiet is repellent.

How common is incest? Freud at first thought the women who told him stories of having been sexually abused by their fathers when young were delusional or lying; later he thought some of them at least had told some truths. In her Reading Lolita in Teheran, Azar Nafisi charged that the new regime in Iran was making a society for old men to control and abuse the sexuality of young women. It’s a truth universally acknowledged an aging man wants a young virgin …

The Quiet could be interpreted as making visible how something is going seriously awry in US culture. Debased demeaning crude sexuality constitutes the caricatured talk of the teenagers; the parents spend their time creating luxurious sets in their house to live in, when they are not making money to pay for these. There seems to be no place safe for, no encouragement of tenderness, affection.

As usual in the second session of my teaching this term, I played songs from three old long-playing records on our old Fisher-Price record player. This was a Christmas present to Caroline when she was 6 or 7, and it became Yvette’s. They loved the Sesame Street records they’d play on it. I play for my students, The Cream ("Sunshine of your Love" and other rock songs of frank idealized desire), The Pentangle ("Hunting Song" with a sitar, "House Carpenter" and other yearning and tender love folk songs), and a couple of moving personal lyric-style songs by Dylan (about being left by a girlfriend, about being out in the storm and seeking shelter). I counted three student papers where the students commented that the songs were so different from those of today. They—all three young women—said the songs of today are hard, full of violence, lots of hatred, driving. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch tells the same story from the angle of the workplace.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. From Annie Finch, listowner of Wompo and published poet, essayist, translator:

    "Dear Wompos,

    This week Glen and I watched Water, directed by Deepa Mehta, twice and could easily watch it 3 more times before sending it back to Netflix. It’s SUCH a beautiful and powerful film. I liked the other movies in her trilogy, Earth and Fire, also, but Water is in my opinion a GREAT movie, right up there with Kurasawa or Bunuel (whom she cites as a major influence).. It’s about the lives of widows in India in the 1930s—forced to live lives of deprivation, even if they were widowed as children. The cinematography, acting, script, lighting, music, are extraordinary. Any other fans out there?

    Sylvia    Sep 12, 6:42am    #
  2. Also from Wompo:

    "Deepa Mehta’s Trilogy, especially Water, is right up there with Satayjit Ray. Annie, I agree. She gives us such a compassionate, rounded view of the widow’s ashram, and her visual language is gorgeous. Water also portends partition in a particularly powerful way.

    Sylvia    Sep 12, 6:44am    #
  3. On Wompo I added:

    "The acting was terrific and the cinematography beautiful. The attitude of the young man’s parents was important: they just didn’t want to know about the background of this teenager and only wanted him to marry up. They regarded these women as polluted and would not help even the one.

    Sylvia    Sep 12, 7:15am    #
  4. From Sivani on Booker Prize at Yahoo:


    Addressing just one tiny part of your interesting post, the film Water and the response to it.

    Deepa Mehta has long attracted ire from sections of Indian society because of her portrayal of uncomfortable topics which many would rather deny exist; at the same time she has attracted exasperation from many intellectual and "enlightened" quarters for the facile nature of parts of her movies. As an example, in her film Fire (which I thought was excellent, by the way) she came under fire (no pun intended) from the latter group for the way in which she (seemed to have) suggested that lesbian relationships are the result of frustrated women in loveless (and sexless) marriages seeking release. (The heat she faced from the conservatives was of course due to the fact that she dared to suggest that something like a lesbian relationship could possibly exist, and especially among married women.)

    Water’s criticism from the intellectual and academic circles centered again on the lack of contextualization, the failure to bear in mind the majority of her audience who would be Western, many of whom would have no other reference to the aspects of Indian culture portrayed in her films than those films themselves. While in Fire, she did not mean to sugguest that every woman in such a marriage turn into a lesbian, nor that that is the way in which all lesbian relationships are formed, she did leave that impression on people unfamiliar with the culture. In Water, most Western audiences leave
    the theater thinking that all Hindu widows are treated in the manner she portrayed.

    I am not denying that there are Westerners capable of taking a story and from there inferring that it is talking about an isolated instance, or a set of instances isolated historically or by community; at the same time, many of the people walking into the theater is watching Mehta’s film where everything is new to them, but most things are universally true in India while a select few are true only in that particular instance – without guidance, it can become exceedingly difficult to determine which parts are which.

    I belong to a mailing list SASIALIT (South Asian Lit) that is populated in majority by academics, scholars and writers either from South Asia or with special interest in South Asia (read Indian subcontinent including Sri Lanka). A couple of months ago there was a long thread precisely on this film and its impact – I am posting an extract of one of the earlier mails here:
    (I know you are very busy, but if you are interested I can send you the links to list – it averages about 10-15 posts a day.)"

    I agree that there was not enough contextualization, esp for non-Indians who know little about the subject to begin with, and the problematic impression you are left with is that all widows go through this and that nothing has changed since the 1930s/40s, which is not the case at all.

    The friend I saw the movie with – who is a writer herself, politically aware, feminist, liberal, without much knowledge of India other than what the press feed her – came away with this:
    "Widows bring bad luck, so they are all institutionalised"

    When I pointed out how one of the characters – Abraham – says that these women come from destitute homes where one less mouth to feed makes all the difference her response:

    "Yes. In the 30’s there must have a lot of of poor people. Even now india has a lot of poverty. Ergo, lots of Hindu widows are institutionalized. This is the norm, not an exceptional practice that exists mainly among the Bengalis."

    Sylvia    Sep 12, 9:39am    #
  5. I’ve time only for a brief response. I’m very grateful for the above commentary.

    I contextualized my remarks with The Quiet deliberately. I had seen Water quite a while ago but did not write about it until I saw a western film which to my way of thinking brought out the same issues: exploitation and abuse of women by men for sexual purposes, and then in effect throwing them away. I also referred to Azar Nafisi’s powerful condemnation of the same paradigm and realities in Iran society; a new law was recently promulgated to facilitate the ability of older men to marry young girls as young as 9.

    Poverty is not the issue here, though if poverty is common that is no reason for justifying it. The idea of such a film is something should be done to change this common condition.

    The issue here is the particulars of the case; to erase these is to erase. They matter.

    In The Quiet I was bothered by the voyeuristic element and also the slant given on the teenage girls, but the two films bring out the same cross-culture problem.

    There will of course always be people who misunderstand what they see, and take large generalizations where they are not meant. Nationalisms and misunderstanding by even many people, should not deter us from publicizing what is wrong and cruel to try to make for more change yet. When I've done a great book like _Staying On_ I'll have students who are indignant or protest the depiction of Indians there.

    An analogous book by the way to Water is Diderot's Nun where he too takes up the same response to enforced nunneries in the 18th century: lesbain attachments.

    Sylvia    Sep 12, 9:41am    #
  6. Annie Finch wrote:

    "Eleven activists threatened to set themselves ablaze if filming resumed; effigies were burned; the secretary of the KSRSS was on a hunger strike; and there were death threats and bomb scares directed at the crew.

    Isn’t this extraordinary. Every once in a while, I kind of blink and shake my head and wonder what on earth is going on. I wonder if this kind of breaking silence about an issue oppressing any other group could be met with such resistance, or is there an essential connection with sexism here. Would there have been such protests over a comparable breaking of silence by any religius, ethnic, or any other oppressed group? Is this just basic evil and prejudice fighting for itself? Or is Adrienne Rich right, that sexism is the original root and model of all oppressions, learned within every family, and hence the most fiercely and emotionally defended of them all?

    Sylvia    Sep 14, 8:31am    #

commenting closed for this article