May 12, 2006, BY TERRY LAWSON, FREE PRESS MOVIE CRITIC
If you are unfamiliar with the tenants of Hindu fundamentalism, the premise of "Water" could take you aback.
The final film in what Indian-born, Canadian-based writer-director Deepa Mehta calls her elements trilogy — following "Fire" (1996) and "Earth" (1998) — was inspired by the centuries-old tradition of sati, in which a Hindu widow must prove devotion to her husband by throwing herself on his funeral pyre, marrying the man's younger brother or removing herself from society for the rest of her life.
As unreasonably punitive as it might seem, it worsens when you take into account the preadolescent girls who are officially married under Hindu law, yet remain with parents until old enough to perform wifely duties. Though sati is still practiced in India, where widows are generally sent to live together in ashrams, "Water" is set in 1938, when Mahatma Gandhi's crusade against colonialism had him condemning the unfairness of sati laws.
At the center of this heartbreaking yet beautifully composed drama is the 8-year-old Chuyia (Ronica Sajnani Sarala), who, with no comprehension of what is happening or memory of the man she has been married off to, is sent to a crumbling ashram, has her head shaved and is imprisoned. The ashram is worse than any orphanage or poor house imagined by Dickens, buzzing with flies, populated by women of all ages and presided over by a hateful and corrupt crone named Madhumati (Manorama).
We are introduced to the other widows as they respond to Chuyia's terror and dislocation. The elderly, candy-craving and toothless Auntie (Vidula Javalgekar) has seen this before, but is almost grateful for the break in routine. The middle-aged, devout Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) takes Chuyia under her wing, helping her make what would seem to be an impossible adjustment.
And above it all is the beautiful young Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who lives with privileges the others do not have. She has kept her hair and harbors a forbidden puppy. Chuyia is taken by the sort of femininity unfound in the rest of the home (along, of course, with the puppy) and steals away to Kalyani's room whenever she can.
Eventually, we see why Kalyani is set apart; Madhumati has partnered with a hermaphrodite hustler, Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), to sell Kalyani to wealthy Brahmins on the other side of the river, sharing profits and keeping Madhumati in marijuana.
But Kalyani has also caught the eye of the handsome and idealistic son of one of the Brahmins, Narayana (John Abraham), a Gandhi follower whose secret courtship of Kalyani will bring trouble to them both.
As with the previous films in the trilogy, "Water" uses beautiful, natural imagery to offset what might have been, in less capable hands, a melodramatic story. The opening scene is as representative as it is lovely, showing water lilies floating serenely in the Ganges muck, reminding us that there are some places pollution will never be able permeate.
"Water" also reminds us that Mehta is a filmmaker of courage — she refused to abandon this film even after fundamentalist protestors shut down the production in India — and singular style, telling stories that have never been told on screen.