Directed by Deepa Mehta. Canada. 2005.

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According to the ancient Hindu Laws of Manu: a wife has only three options upon the death of her husband: She must burn with his remains, remarry his younger brother, or live the remainder of her life in self-denial. The third film in a trilogy that explores religious hypocrisy, Canadian filmmaker Deepak Mehta's Water is an eloquent protest against the maltreatment of Indian widows, some as young as seven years old, who are condemned to live a life of penitence and deprivation. The shooting of Water in India was interrupted in 2000 by Hindu fundamentalists who staged protests, destroyed sets, and forced the production to shut down and move to Sri Lanka. 

Set in India in 1938 along the River Ganges, Water chronicles the lives of several widows against the backdrop of the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent campaign for liberation. Recently widowed 8-year old Chuyia, played by the outstanding Sri Lankan actress Sarala, is sent by her family to a house for widows where her head is shaved and she must wear a white sari to let others know of her status. Chuyia meets the overbearing Madhumati (Manorma), the "mother" figure who raises money for the ashram by sending young girls across the River Ganges to be prostitutes. She is gently opposed by Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who tries to protect the girls without openly denying the traditions. 

Kalyani (Lisa Ray) is one of the girls used by Madhumati but she still manages to maintain a youthful innocence and beauty. Chuyia and Kalyani become friends and while walking in the village, accidentally meet Narayana, a young law student (John Abraham) who is active in the movement for Indian liberation. He fiercely opposes the hypocrisy involved in isolating widows and condemning them as untouchables. He tells Kalyani that the issue is one not of religion but of money: "One less mouth to feed", he says, "four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it's just about money," Narayana and Kalyani fall in love and he asks her to marry him in spite of the opposition of his family and society, a situation that leads to unfortunate consequences. 

In Water, Mehta employs the humanist tradition of Satyajit Ray with expressive Indian music enhancing the emotions of the characters, but also bodily lifts the character of Auntie from Pather Panchali and the movie struggles for an original style. While Water is beautiful to look at and embodies an important message, it is ultimately defeated by a very conventional style, a clichéd and manipulative plot, and some larger than life characters who never come alive as real human beings. 


Howard Schumann
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