Bollywood turns bitter in attack on religious tradition. 

Water is the third in a series of controversial films by Indian writer/director Deepa Mehta, and her skill and experience as a provocateur are on full display. The film centers on the plight of widows in traditional Indian culture. Through an opening intertitle, we learn widows are expected to live out their lives in chaste religious observance, separated from society, under penalty of damnation if their piety is violated. On the cusp of Ghandi's passive revolution -- a time when political and cultural boundaries were in flux -- these women live in isolation, holding onto the hope that perhaps, if they are lucky, they might be reborn as a man.

The central character in the film is 12-year-old Chuyia, a girl too young to realize that she has already been married or that she is soon to be widowed. The opening scene introduces the tone of bittersweet tragedy that Mehta achieves so well throughout the picture: Chuyia seated on a cart beside her dying husband, happily sucking on a sugar cane, unaware that she is traveling toward lifelong imprisonment. This is quickly juxtaposed with a painful scene of Chuyia having her head shaved and being abandoned by her parents at a widow's compound in the city.

Predictably, the arrival of Chuyia sets the long-ordered universe of the widows tilting toward confrontation, but the women do not present a simple unified front. Mehta digs deeper, showing how their warped, self-righteous survival has created an internal power structure, a microcosm that mirrors the entrenched cruelty of India's caste system.

The film builds to a boil as Chuyia and Kalyani, a rebellious young widow who befriends the girl, pursue a life outside the compound. A romance blossoms between Kalyani and Narayan, a young nationalist and progressive Ghandite. Mehta allows this love story to blossom to Bollywood proportions, but she never relaxes her tragic intent.


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