3½ stars (out of four)
Deepa Mehta's "Water"--the third film in her elemental "Fire"-"Earth"-Water" trilogy--is a gentle yet powerful drama of social protest, an impassioned portrayal of the fruits of prejudice, set in 1938 India, at a time when Gandhi's crusade against British rule flourished.
Winds of change were sweeping the country, yet many of its women still remained slaves to harsh ancient marital customs, the Hindu laws that forbade widows to remarry (except to a husband's brother) or to live normal lives after the death of their mates. Those laws exiled them from the everyday world. To Mehta, that's an outrage--and one that still persists today, in an India with more than 33 million widows.
But the writer-director doesn't raise her voice, even as she firmly condemns the injustice. "Water" seduces us with its beauty and sorrow.
The central characters--8-year-old Chuyia (Sarala), lovely young Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and middle-age Shakuntala (Seema Biswas)--are all residents of an ashram, a house for widows run by an amoral old crook named Madhumati (Manorama), a shaven-headed, fat harpy who exploits them all and forces some, including Kalyani, into prostitution.
"Water" starts with the primary focus on Chuyia, a child bride, recent widow and lively scamp who barely remembers her marriage or husband, and whom we first see having her head shaven. As we follow the little girl's bewildered introduction to the ashram and her fellow widows--including sweets-loving old Patiraji or "Auntie" (Vidula Javalgekar), whose vulnerability stabs your heart--we see things through Chuyia's eyes, the alert luminous gaze of a child.
That cinematic gaze stays bright even as the focus shifts to the watchful, good-hearted Shakuntala, to Kalyani and to her lover Narayan (John Abraham), who seems here a perfect hero. A follower of Gandhi, urbane, wealthy, open-hearted, handsome as a male model or an action movie star (both of which Abraham has been in India), he's a man who rejects the conformity of the film's other, more cynical males and offers Kalyani, briefly, a chance to escape the tyranny of Madhumati and the laws.
Without being at all sappy, "Water" is a deeply romantic film; Ray and Abraham are one of the most stunning couples the screen has recently given us. And despite its incendiary subject, it isn't strident. Even so, when writer-director Mehta, a Hindu herself, started shooting "Water" in India in 2000, she was driven out by extremist religious protests. (Mehta had to recast and reshoot the film in Sri Lanka, completing it in 2004.)
What makes "Water" so effective is the poetic way she frames her protest, her controlled passion and the absence of obvious political preaching. Like India's greatest filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, Mehta is a great pure-hearted storyteller and a maker of shining naturalistic images.
Lit lovingly by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, those images have the radiance of a reality only slightly softened by romanticism--Kalyani and her beloved hidden puppy; little Chuyia scooping water from the nearby river for the dying "Auntie" and the last corny but wonderful shot of Gandhi's departing train and someone trying to catch it.
Protest dramas run the risk of seeming schematic and foreordained, but Mehta lets us relax into these images, live with these characters--just as she did in "Fire," which dealt with contemporary arranged marriages, and "Earth," which was about India's partition. The way she shoots "Water," so openly and with such unforced joy, exposes the evil rigidity of the widow laws as much as the story itself. The sight of Kalyani's sweet, resigned expression, surrounded by a world of pain, imprints her face and fate on our minds, sets a blaze of love and rage in our hearts.
Directed and written by Deepa Mehta; photographed by Giles Nuttgens; edited by Colin Monie; production designed by Dilip Mehta; music by Mychael Danna; produced by David Hamilton. In Hindi, with English subtitles. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday at AMC Pipers Alley, AMC Streets of Woodfield, AMC South Barrington and Evanston Century Cinearts. Running time: 1:54. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexual situations and drug use).
Shakuntala - Seema Biswas
Kalyani - Lisa Ray
Narayan - John Abraham
Chuyia - Sarala
Madhumati - Manorama
Patiraji - Vidula JavalgekarCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times