Deepa Mehta has been working on her elemental trilogy since the
mid-1990s. The initial entry was
FIRE (1996), which I liked but not as
much as the second entry
EARTH (1998). The third movie, WATER,
faced a troubling production history. Hindu extremists had objected
to the content of both
FIRE and EARTH and after an early draft of
WATER was leaked to the press, there was a direct campaign to halt
the production before it began in 2000. Mehta was forced to suspend
production after threats, bureaucratic nightmares, and violence in the
form of riots that destroyed the film's sets.

 After regrouping, and going off to film a couple of other movies
returned to the controversial material. With a new cast and new
locations, she set out to make the film she intended, a look at
the plight of widows in India set in the late 1930s as India was
struggling for independence. Because of religious and societal
restrictions, women who were widowed were forced to live together and
were shunned by their families and many in the community.

WATER centers on Chuyia (the extraordinary child performer
Sarala), a nine-year-old who was married off by her family. When her
older husband dies, she is returned to her family who send her off
to live in the city of Banaras with a group of widows. She is the
youngest and doesn't quite understand what has happened to her,
expecting at any moment to be sent home. Chuyia immediately dislikes
Madhumati (Manorama), the head of the house, and instead is drawn
to the maternal Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the sisterly Kalyani
(Lisa Ray).

 Kalyani herself is struggling with the restrictions placed on her.
In order to survive, she has been allowed to grow out her hair and
serves as a prostitute at the behest of Madhumati. But she has also
met and fallen in love with Narayan (John Abraham), a headstrong young
man who is a follower of Mahatma Gandhi. There love story is one of the
main subplots that results in tragedy.

 In a childlike way, Chuyia aims to hurt Madhumati over a slight,
and the older woman exacts a terrible revenge on the youngster. When
Shakuntala learns of what has transpired, she springs into action and
makes a decision that breaks with devout beliefs.

 Mehta has directed one of the most moving films of the year.
And surprisingly, not much has changed in the last 70 years. The
tradition of sequestering widows continues in India. Mehta deserves
praise for spotlighting this situation.
WATER is one of the year's best

         Rating:              A-
         MPAA Rating:      PG-13 for mature thematic material
                                         involving sexual situations, and
                                         for brief drug use
         Running time:    117 mins.
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.