A controversial drama, "Water," lambastes India's ancient practice of consigning widows to society's scrap heap.
There's an undercurrent of rage swirling through "Water," but you'd never realize it from a casual glance at this drama, which is built on imagery that is as beautiful as it is angry.
It is the third movie in a trilogy of injustice by Deepa Mehta, a native of India who works out of Canada, but continues to make films that challenge the customs of her native society. The first film, "Fire," was about two lesbians forced into repressive heterosexual marriages. The second, "Earth, was based on religious strife between Muslims and Hindus.
"Water" condemns the centuries-old practice of ostracizing widows, an act based on the Laws of Manu (a sacred Hindu text) declaring that a woman has no value except through her husband. By extension, when the husband dies, his wife becomes worthless.
As an example of this practice carried to extremes, Mehta's story focuses on an 8-year-old girl whose financially strapped family sells her into a marriage with an elderly, terminally ill man. Her husband dies almost immediately.
The youngster, Chuyia (Sarala), doesn't understand what's happening. Nonetheless, she is shipped off to a home for widows, where she is expected to spend the rest of her life.
Her future worth to the ashram is clear, if only to her elders. As soon as she reaches puberty, she will be expected to become a prostitute. It is the ashram's main source of income.
She befriends one of the younger widows, Kalyani (Lisa Ray, who played the lead in Mehta's "Hollywood/Bollywood"). Chuyia's questions about why Kalyani allows herself to be treated so badly start to make her wonder the same thing.
It's a heavy plot, but Mehta addresses it with discretion. There are no bitter confrontations or bombastic speeches. When Kalyani arrives at one of her appointments, the camera cuts away, not wanting to exploit her even if her client does.
Mehta has a complex artistic vision. Although her subjects wallow in poverty, she captures their environment in a tranquil soft focus. The rooms are dark, and the widows wear white robes. The combination creates the impression of a black-and-white movie -- an illusion that is quickly dashed on the few occasions the widows venture out in public.
Mehta has been chastised in some circles for setting the story in the late 1930s, a period her critics argue ignores modern-day reforms. The plot veers dangerously close to melodrama at times, and while the two main characters are fully realized, the other widows in the ashram fall into stereotypes.
Nonetheless, "Water" packs a punch that is difficult to parry.
Rating: PG-13 for scenes implying prostitution.