Born in India and now a Canadian citizen, film director Deepa Mehta has garnered international acclaim as an innovative, moving and courageous filmmaker. Having once observed an impoverished widow crawling on her hands and knees along the Ganges, Mehta was inspired to examine the lives of Indian widows. According to ancient Hindu texts, when a husband dies, the widow has three alternatives: commit sati (immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), marry his brother (if one is available), or live in forced poverty and isolation, withdrawing to an ashram (group home) for widows.
Mehta’s response took the shape of the film Water, which also completes her "elemental film" trilogy. Her acclaimed Fire examined two women in loveless and repressive marriages finding new love and life with each other. Earth told the story of a group of friends cut off from each other by the partitioning of India and Pakistan. Deepa Mehta’s reputation had clearly preceded her when she undertook filming Water in India. (Some individuals had been so upset by Mehta’s previous film Fire that several theaters screening it in India were set on fire.)
Fueled by rumors among Hindu fundamentalists that Water would spread unflattering images of India to the West, Mehta was forced to shut down production in 2000 in the face of mounting pressure and personal death threats. Several years later Mehta was eventually able to resume shooting the film in Sri Lanka, recasting the parts and inventively reworking the new locations. She cast a local Sri Lankan girl, Sarala, who spoke neither English nor Hindi, in the featured role of Chuyia.
Set in the 1930s India, Water opens with Chuyia, a newly widowed eight-year-old, being delivered to an ashram for widows, where she is expected to live out her life in renunciation and atonement, expiating bad karma for all of them. Set dramatically against the historic rise of Gandhi and the first serious challenges to British colonial rule, Water explores the plight of widows as one of many archaic practices (still extant in India to this day), particularly among the rural poor and uneducated classes. Some of Mehta’s avowed purpose here is to pull back the veneer of culturally mandated religious custom–"outmoded faith"–to expose corrupt practices which primarily serve financial and political expedience.
Through the eyes of the child Chuyia, who scarcely remembers her wedding or grasps her fate as a widow, the audience encounters the ashram’s widows, who range from prepubescent youth to old age, whose sometimes heart-breaking responses range from fervent acceptance to smoldering, rebellious misery. Chuyia befriends the beautiful, long-haired Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who earns money for the ashram by prostituting herself, thereby incurring the contempt of her fellow low-caste penitents. (Begging in the streets is a primary occupation of widows.)
The ashram is ruled by Madhumati (Manorama), an old, embittered woman, whose only friend is the eunuch Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav). The two collaborate professionally, pimping Kalyani. Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) is quiet and reserved, enigmatic and full of wisdom. She often seeks out counsel from the Hindu priest Sadananda (Khulbushan Kharbanda). Also among the women who look out for little Chuyia is ancient, wizened "Auntie" Patiraji (Vidula Javalgekar).
The plot moves forward when Chuyia’s closest friend, Kalyani has a chance meeting with the dashing and romantic idealist Narayana (Bollywood star John Abraham), a follower of Gandhi. Narayana incurs the wrath of his father and the indignation of his mother when he announces he has chosen a wife on his own, one significantly lower than their Brahmin caste. Kalyani falls in love with the charismatic Narayana. But, as she awakens to a world of undreamed of new possibilities, she also discovers she cannot follow him.
Water glows from rich and natural lighting, warm and radiant colors, and powerful symbolic imagery. The cinematography deliberately evokes classical Indian films, in particular Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. The two hopeful lovers meet under an ancient banyan tree, hinting at how complexly and powerfully, and impossibly, their small fates interlock with the rest of society. Astonishing twilight scenes of the faithful moving among the burning funeral pyres along the Ganges alternate with the gritty interiors of ashram life. Kalyani is visually compared to the "lotus untouched by the filthy water it grows in," while everywhere waters flow, ever changing.