A little girl, preoccupied and uncomprehending, sits in the prow of a boat transporting a seriously ill middle-aged man to the nearest doctor in a small Indian city. Once ashore the man dies, leaving the girl, Chuyia (Sarala), as his 8-year-old widow. Her parents, with much pain, swiftly deposit her in an ashram for widows, never to see her again. The distraught child's head is immediately shaved, and she is clad in the white cotton sari that is to be her lifelong uniform.
This is the jolting beginning of "Water," Deepa Mehta's superb conclusion to her "trilogy of the elements," beginning with "Fire," which stirred controversy with its forthright depiction of passionate lesbian love, continued with "Earth," which explored the partition of India and its consequences, and now "Water," which reveals the traditional plight of widows in India.
For all her impassioned commitment as a filmmaker, Mehta never preaches but instead tells a story of intertwining strands in a wholly compelling manner. "Water," set in the British colonial India of 1938, is as beautiful as it is harrowing, its idyllic setting beside the sacred Ganges River contrasting with the widows' oppressive existence as outcasts. The film seethes with anger over their plight yet never judges, and possesses a lyrical, poetical quality. Just like the Ganges, life goes on flowing, no matter what. Mehta sees her people in the round, entrapped and blinded by a cruel and outmoded custom dictated by ancient religious texts but sustained more often by a family's desire to relieve itself of the economic burden of supporting widows. As a result, she is able to inject considerable humor in her stunningly perceptive and beautifully structured narrative. "Water" emerges as a film of extraordinary richness and complexity.
The ashram occupies a beautiful but shabby old tile-roofed adobe structure enclosing a patio — not unlike the spacious homes that once adjoined Olvera Street and the plaza. Overseeing it is the formidable Madhumati (Manorma), who has the challenge of meeting the monthly rent, as widows are forced to support themselves either as beggars or prostitutes. (The suggestion that widows would resort to prostitution to survive so offended Hindu fundamentalists that the making of "Water" was delayed for years, with Mehta forced to shoot it in Sri Lanka.)
Chuyia has too much spirit to be cowed by Madhumati, and she is befriended by Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who lives apart from the other widows in a wooden tower room encircled by a porch with magnificent views of the Ganges. Chuyia receives maternal love from Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, star of the corrosive "Bandit Queen"), a lovely woman on the verge of middle age. Shakuntala ultimately proves to be the film's pivotal figure, capable of reflection and questioning the status quo even as she struggles to retain her religious faith. (The ashram widows constantly curse their fate but except for Shakuntala never question the custom that has consigned them to it.)
The arrival of Chuyia at the ashram and her gradual acceptance of her situation takes the viewer into the enclosed world of the widows, but Mehta deftly shifts her focus to Kalyani, who has had a chance encounter with Narayan (John Abraham), a handsome, wealthy Brahmin law student with progressive views inspired by Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose doctrine of passive resistance would free India of British control less than a decade later. The question whether Kalyani and Narayan will have the fortitude to defy the taboo of a widow remarrying any man except for a brother of her late husband unwinds in tantalizing, increasingly suspenseful fashion.
Mehta has inspired her cast to rise from one dramatic challenge to another, and her film is charged throughout with the tension between the wisdom of accepting one's lot in life and the urge to resist it. "Water" cascades shimmeringly from one inspired, often bitterly ironic and always illuminating incident to another, its ending as shattering as its beginning yet, paradoxically, striking a calmly assuring note of life's wondrous beauties and endless possibilities.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and for brief drug use
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Writer-director Deepa Mehta. Producer David Hamilton. Director of photography Giles Nuttgens. Editor Colin Monie. In Hindi with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times