If some religious extremists in India had gotten their way, the gorgeous fury of Deepa Mehta's Water never would have reached the screen. As it is, these self-appointed censors shut down the production for years by staging demonstrations, torching Mehta's sets and threatening her life. Eventually, the filmmaker moved her long-delayed project to locations in neighboring Sri Lanka.
What's all the fuss about? Simply that Mehta had the temerity to make a film about the virtual imprisonment of Hindu widows in her native country -- tens of millions of women shunned by their patriarchal society in the years before India's independence. Supported by the state government in Uttar Pradesh, Hindu fundamentalists terrorized Mehta at every turn. She is now widely regarded as a sister-in-persecution to her countryman Salman Rushdie, the novelist who became the target of an Islamic fatwa for his irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses.
Mehta was not to be thwarted. Water is the third chapter in her so-called "Elements" trilogy, and it is the most powerful, by a wide margin. In 1997's Fire, she addressed contemporary Indian life in a story about gender roles and rigid moral codes; two years later, Earth tackled the bloody Hindu-Muslim rivalries that plagued India in 1947, after withdrawing British colonialists left the country -- and newly formed Pakistan -- to its own devices. Even more assured than its predecessors, Water is set in 1938 in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, which in March was beset by new outbreaks of sectarian violence. Mehta, who frequently speaks about India's "collective amnesia" when it comes to confronting religious and cultural clashes, is obviously determined to have her fellow citizens remember a time when Hindu widows, many of them very young, were abandoned to lifelong suffering by those who regarded them as the worthless residue of their dead husbands.
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The film's heroines are a bewildered eight-year-old named Chuyia (played by Sarala, a child chosen from a village in Sri Lanka) who, due to the untimely demise of her spouse, is sent to live in an ashram for widows, and a beautiful woman in her twenties, Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who is regarded as the jewel of the place -- not least because she's the inmates' meal ticket. The women are forbidden to reinvent their lives or remarry, and they're also required to pay "rent" and cover expenses: Immune to irony and bereft of shame, the ashram's stern matriarch (played by veteran Indian actress Manorama) regularly ferries Kalyani across the sacred Ganges, where she is forced to prostitute herself to the chauvinist Brahmans on the far shore.
Two rays of hope light this bleak scenario. The great Indian liberationist Mahatma Gandhi is on the rise, and the film's tiny protagonist is so innocently and so willfully detached from the past that she comes to embody the new spirit of her time. It may be too late for the decrepit, broken women with whom Chuyia shares a cough-wracked dormitory that feels very much like a cell block. But we sense from the beginning that the little one may break her shackles and board a freedom train to the future. Meanwhile, the lovely Kalyani serves as Mehta's bridge between eras, a role that implies sacrifice. Add a forward-thinking young liberal named Narayan (the handsome John Abraham), and Mehta's microcosm is nearly complete, freighted with every possibility for tragedy and transcendence. Hindu fundamentalists may not like it, but this filmmaker has transformed her feminist rage into an eloquent testament to the hunger for human rights.
"In grief, we are all sisters here," one of the defeated widows declares. Maybe so, but sisterhood has a ways to go in pre-war Varanasi. Mehta and her longtime cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens, use water itself as a powerful metaphor for both tradition and change -- bathing water, the holy river, rainfall. But the film's most enduring image, aside from the little girl's lovely face, is the one embedded in the tiles of the ashram walls: the swastika. By 1938, of course, that ancient Hindu symbol of well-being and good fortune had been co-opted by a vast malignancy in Germany, and there's little doubt that Mehta would have us consider the ambiguity of its appearances in her film. In 1938, the battle against repression had many fronts.
In the six decades since independence, India has undergone huge changes. Current media reports say that for the next half-century, the world's second-most-populous nation will have the fastest-growing economy in the world -- despite 300 million people subsisting on less than a dollar a day. For now, Hindu nationalism seems to be losing momentum in a dynamic free-market democracy, and Western powers like the United States are wooing Indian leaders as never before. The country is clearly emerging as a major player. But the concerns of social critics like Deepa Mehta have not all been put to rest. For one thing, at the end of Water, a stunning postscript appears on the screen, informing us that 34 million Indian widows still live in officially sanctioned isolation. Obviously, her work is not done.