Deepa Mehta's Water, whose production was delayed for years because of violent protests by Hindu fundamentalists, is foremost a tragic love story set in British-ruled India on the eve of independence and modernity. But Mehta, an émigré to Canada whose previous movies also sparked controversy in her native country, makes use of the historical moment to condemn social and political injustices characteristic of colonialism, although her dudgeon is perfunctory.
She is genuinely incensed by the religious practice requiring widows to live as penitents, however, and makes it the focus of her narrative. This tenet of strict Hinduism, which prescribes that women atone for their dead husbands by living a chaste and segregated life, will strike unbelievers as gross superstition, but Metha isn't beating a dead cow; according to a statistic she projects on screen at the conclusion of the movie, an astonishing 34 million widows still live as outcasts in India, a lot of people even for a nation whose population surpasses one billion.
As it ends, so Water begins, in a dour mood. Eight-year-old Chuyia (played by Sarala, a girl with no prior acting experience) is accompanying her dying husband to the sacred Ganges River. Following his cremation, the child is taken to an ashram for widows, a common practice that owes as much to economic necessity as religious duty. Here she must learn to live the life of the ascetic, although she barely understands the reason she has been abandoned by her family.
The overcrowded ashram teems with embittered crones like the toothless Auntie (Vidula Javalgekar), who comforts (or tortures) herself with the memory of sweetmeats savored on her distant wedding day. Overseeing the compound, the martinet Madhumati (played by the renowned Tamil actress Manorama) exploits her charges according to their earning potential. Those who are religious, such as Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), weave baskets and cloth or beg in the streets; others, like the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), are forced into genteel prostitution, escorted on their clandestine assignations by the eunuch Gulabi (Raqhuvir Yadav), the ashram's procuress.
One day, while chasing a runaway puppy, Chuyia runs into Narayan (John Abraham), a politically conscious and conveniently dashing law student. He escorts her back to the ashram, where Chuyia introduces him to Kalyani. It's love at first sight, of course, replete with requisite barriers. Narayan not only must convince his complacent mother (Waheeda Rehman) that times are changing-he is an ardent supporter of Mahatma Gandhi-he also must reconcile his own conflicts about Hinduism and his privileged status in Indian society. Kalyani faces even bigger problems. Literally held captive, she must depend on her friend Shakuntala to liberate her mind from the shackles of tradition as well as her body from the ashram.
The fate of this caste-crossed couple is foreshadowed by Narayan's fatuous friend, Rabindra (Vinay Pathak), who sprinkles his conversation with clichés plucked from Romeo and Juliet, a typical example of his glib Western affectations. Thankfully, Mehta doesn't belabor the film's cultural clashes. Even so, Water's social realism works against its romanticism, the movie unable to decide whether it wants to be a historical epic or a Hallmark tearjerker. Give credit to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, production designer Dilip Mehta and art director Sumant Jayakrishnan. Together they create a dream atmosphere, an unearthly city of ancient temples rising among the bodhi and banyan trees on the banks of the Ganges.
In fact, Mehta and her crew were forced to construct a entire second set in Sri Lanka after the production was shut down in India. Protestors kept tossing parts of the original set, erected in the holy city of Varanasi, into the river, burning effigies of the director and delivering death threats to the actors. Mehta put off filming for five years, recasting the picture. Lisa Ray replaced Nandita Das, who had the lead in Fire and Earth, two earlier films in the "Trilogy of the Elements" that includes Water, and Mehta discovered young Sarala by chance in a small village, teaching her to speak her lines phonetically. On top of everything else, the art department lost a warehouse full of props and costumes to a monsoon.
Perhaps the adversity of making the movie allowed the filmmakers and actors to empathize more fully with the subject and characters of Water. Certainly Mehta's early experience, shooting episodes of "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," couldn't have been better training for such arduous art.