India, 1938. A dozen widows live together in penury on an ashram in Banares. According to Hindu tradition because their husbands are dead, they are themselves only half alive. Officially they are prohibited from further contact with men (save for an arranged marriage with a younger brother-in-law). In reality, the only way they can survive is by prostituting one of their number. Kalyani (the striking Lisa Ray) is in her 20s, still young and beautiful, and so it is understood that she is their breadwinner.
Because child brides are not uncommon in India, there are child widows too. Chuyia (Sarala) is an eight-year-old, a naturally mischievous urchin with her shaved head and big grin. She is confused about what she's doing here and happily oblivious to the fact that she is destined to spend her entire adult life in this monastic environment.
Several of the women take an interest in her, especially when it comes to discipline and punishment. The most sympathetic is middle-aged Shakuntala (Seema Biswas, from Bandit Queen), struggling to make some sort of peace with this unjust system. But Chuyia and the kind-hearted Kalyani become firm friends, and gradually the child comes to understand the rules and traditions which govern this strange household - as well as the hypocrisies and sexism that hold everyone in their place.
Chuyia is instrumental in introducing Kalyani to Narayan (John Abrahams), a modern free-thinker and a follower of Gandhi, and she observes as he follows her, courts her, and eventually urges her to become his wife. Even in 1938 there is no law to prevent it, only deeply entrenched custom and prejudice. Ironically this masculine element throws the picture off balance; instead of honing the theme this dewy romance is too pretty and conventional, as if Mehta's heart wasn't quite in it.
Water is the third part of Deepa Mehta's controversial 'elemental trilogy', after Fire and Earth. Each film stands apart from the others. There are no common characters, only common characteristics: they all challenge taboos around sex and religion. Fire, in 1996, touched on lesbian desire. Earth was a tragedy set against the Partition. As a bonus, we get to see how the Indian ex-pat's filmmaking matures and deepens over a decade.
Mehta began making Water in 2000, but protestors successfully shut it down. Angry that an international filmmaker (and a woman) should want to air such issues in public, they burned down some sets and even threatened her life. Four years later she successfully remounted the production, but only after relocating it to Sri Lanka. That in itself suggests the film is more relevant than we might hope. As a movie, it's beautiful to look at (the exquisitely dappled cinematography is by Giles Nuttgens), soulful, sensitive, and a mite predictable.
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