This is the third in Indian-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta's acclaimed and controversial "elements" trilogy, which includes Fire (1996) and Earth (1998). Each film centers on social politics and some form of forbidden love, but Water may be the wisest, and most accomplished and penetrating, of the three.
The setting is India, 1938. In the middle of the night, 8-year-old Chuyia (the singularly named Sarala) is awoken and informed that the boy she was to one day wed, whom she never knew, has died. Her head is then shaved and she is swiftly removed from her family's home and sent to an ashram for widows, who are forced into seclusion and poverty by the rigors of tradition. These women are dead to the world, discarded as so much rubbish, forbidden to remarry or even interact with others out of fear of "contamination" from their polluted spirits. Chuyia's arrival creates a shock wave at the confinement center, a mixture of confusion, chaos and hope.
Chuyia finds a big sister in Kalyani, (the stunning Lisa Ray), a playful rebel who keeps her hair long and hides a puppy in her room. Kalyani dutifully "serves" the ashram with trips across the river to wealthy clients arranged by a transvestite pimp but keeps her heart open to a handsome stranger Narayan (Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham). Narayan befriends Chuyia but falls for Kalyani. A wealthy idealist and an ardent admirer of Gandhi, Narayan sees the widows' plight as a symbol of what's wrong with the old ways. But his spoiled friends wish he'd quit rocking the boat and enjoy the whiskey and cricket.
Though the romance between Narayan and Kalyani is sometimes stiff, it comes from an Indian film tradition that often treats love as a more lyrical and spiritual abstraction than a matter of earthly passion.
Mehta deftly maneuvers between romance and politics by keeping the scope small and focusing on the daily indignities these women endure. He never lets things get too gushy or preachy.
The production of Water caused intense controversy and outrage in India. The original sets were destroyed by fundamentalist Hindu protestors, and it took several years to complete the project (after a move to Sri Lanka under a blanket of secrecy). The chaotic move was fortuitous: It led to the casting of the gifted child actress Sarala. Her sparkling performance and the sheer beauty of the setting and cinematography keep the bleak subject matter afloat. The water imagery is abundant from the relentless monsoon downpours to the sacred Ganges river where the women wash and pray gently underscoring a story of souls in motion.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].