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Symbolic Violence in Water

Symbolic violence refers to being dominated by those that are traditionally considered superior regardless of whether they are actually superior or not. Sometimes symbolic violence is manifested through the cultural dominance of the rich against the poor, even if the rich have become richer by acting like brutes towards the rest. This form of soft violence may also manifest itself through traditions that demand of males to act as superior beings before females, regardless of whether they are truly superior or not (Formosa). A sad film to begin with, Water (2005) is set during the British colonial times of India.

Because the British colonialists did not behave as good models for Indians to thoroughly respect – the very fact that the film is set during the British Raj brings the concept of symbolic violence to the fore. But, the theme of the film is symbolic violence against the women of India instead of the covert symbolic violence of the British against the Indians. The film is about the traditions of India that make Indian women traditionally subservient to men, regardless of whether they are superior or actually inferior to males.

It is a recognized fact that there are gifted men as well as gifted women; however, the traditions of India making men superior to women do not take individuality into account. This cultural dominance is symbolic violence, of course; those that challenge this form of violence are threatened with real violence. The film portrays the Hindu tradition of marrying young girls to old men. When an old man dies, his wife, then widowed, is forced to live in an institution called the widow’s home or “ashram,” where she is forced to repent her wrongdoings that caused her husband to die (Water). For a Christian, this kind of logic is awry.

Educated Hindus, too, would frown upon such traditions, as does Deepa Mehta perhaps, the director of the film. The fact that the tradition of treating women as subservient to men is described as Hindu in the film by no means implies that women are actually considered inferior to men in Hinduism. Religions are misconstrued by many. Male dominance is, in fact, a form of symbolic violence in Abrahamic faiths too, for the simple fact that males, by tradition, earn daily bread for their families and go to battlefields when they must, while women are expected to nurture their children at home.

Symbolic violence in Water is also manifested through forced prostitution of Kalyani. Cultural dominance is not challenged, and the viewer of the film does not learn how long the “ashram” and its likes have been in existence in India (Water). Another widow, by the name of Shakuntala, realizes the folly of this cultural dominance, though. She learns through her intellectual dialogue with a priest that such traditions in India are not supported by religion, seeing that religion, by its very nature, is meant to propound peace and justice rather than violence and injustice (Water).

Mehta would like her film to carry a message of hope, which is the reason why widows start escaping the symbolic violence of the “ashram,” with utter disregard for senseless conventions (Water). Kalyani is treated like an animal, she is beaten and locked up when she refuses to sell her body. Shakuntala, joining forces with other protesting widows, unlocks Kalyani’s door, allowing her to escape the “ashram” once and for all (Water). The young widow by the name of Chuyia is also helped by Shakuntala to escape the dreary widow’s home, where the symbolic violence of cultural dominance prevails on the basis of brute strength alone.

Chuyia is handed over to a man devoted to Gandhi (Water). Because Gandhi was a symbol of independence and freedom for the Indians, and a challenge to the status quo, bringing the problem of symbolic violence to the leader is the ultimate answer to cultural dominance of women in India. Although the film, Water, is based on a period of Indian history, it was made and released in the twenty-first century for the reason that symbolic violence is taking place almost everywhere at the same time. Education of history is not purposeless.

Women of the Indian subcontinent and many other parts of the world continue to be treated as subservient beings, even if they have educated themselves to rise above this cultural belief. There have been female leaders in the Indian subcontinent to boot. Mehta is a female, too, and her reason for making the film is not only to recreate history but also to stop the problem of symbolic violence, wherever it is manifested in the name of religion. Indeed, Shakuntala is right in her meaning of religion.

No human being on the face of the earth has the right to challenge the human rights of others because of sheer brute strength, regardless of whether the name given this brutality is the military or terrorism in the name of God.


Formosa, M. Sociology as a Means of Intellectual Vigilance: A Tribute to Pierre Bourdieu. Retrieved Oct 25, 2005, from http://www. um. edu. mt/pub/tribute_to_bourdieu. html. Water. (2005). Dir. Deepa Mehta. Cast: Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham, & Sarala K.

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