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(2006) *** R
114 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures.

With Water, Deepa Mehta fashions a horrifying, though ultimately hopeful story of the plight of Indian widows. In 1938 India, eight-year-old girl Chuyia (Sarala), who doesn't even remember her wedding, finds herself widowed. In accordance with fundamentalist Hinduism, Chuyia is left at an ashram, where she faces a life of indigence and abuse at the behest of the bitter old housemother.

Chuyia eventually finds solace in two other widows sensitive to her plight: middle-aged Shakuntula (Seema Biswas) and young Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Aside from bringing out the protective instincts in Shakuntala, Chuyia unwittingly leads the older woman to question her passive place in the ashram. Kalyani, too, supports the ashram through her actions. The only widow allowed to keep long hair (the rest have shaved heads), Kalyani works as a prostitute.

The romantic attentions of Narayan (John Abraham), a wealthy young law student and Gandhi nationalist, complicate Kalyani's lifestyle "choice," as Narayan brings a breath of fresh air to the widow—there is joy and promise in his idealism. But when a train pulls out by film's end, only some of the characters will be on it, symbolically heading toward India's future. Those left behind underscore the fact that modern India is home to 34 million widows, many of whom live in despondent conditions.

Water completes Mehta's loosely related "Elemental Trilogy," began with Fire and Earth, and the director's old-fashioned storytelling skill again proves a strong frame for post-feminist themes. The writer-director's gentle touch movingly weds symbolic imagery to music in a way that lets Water flow (Giles Nuttgens shoots the glittering surfaces and shadowy depths; A.R. Rahman contributes songs to complement Mychael Danna's score). Detailed and graced with irreverent humor and fine performances, Mehta's film deals powerful blows to economic injustice and misogyny.

[For Groucho's interview with Deepa Mehta, click here.]

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