Water (2005), the third film in the "Elements" trilogy by director Deepa Mehta, is beautiful and sad and funny and angry, building on the power of its predecessors Fire (1996), which looked at two lesbians forced into soul-crushing heterosexual marriages, and Earth (1998), about the cultural and religious rift between India and Pakistan. Set in 1938 as Mathatma Gandhi's crusade against British rule is becoming increasingly popular with India's intelligentsia, the film opens with eight-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) being awakened by her father in the middle of the night. Her elderly husband a man she doesn't even recall marrying has died, and she's being sent to an ashram to live out the rest of her life with other widows. Under Hindu law, she has "died" as well, and she must remain chaste for the rest of her time on Earth. So her head is shaved, she's shoved into white robes, and then spirited away to a walled compound full of other, considerably older, widows, who have little patience for an unhappy, willful child. Chuyia finds a friend, however, in Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful widow who has a puppy hidden in her room, which delights Chuyia. Unlike the other widows, Kalyani's allowed to keep her long hair but only because it makes her a more desirable commodity for the domineering Madhumati (Manorama), the unofficial "head widow," who's made a deal with a pimp to turn out Kalyani as a prostitute to wealthy clients in order to bring money into the ashram. During a trip outside the compound to bathe, the puppy runs off and is found by a student, Narayana (John Abraham), an advocate of Gandhi's progressive ideals, and a young man who falls for Kalyani at first sight. He doesn't care that she's a widow, despite society's (i.e., his mother's) refusal to accept the relationship for while a law has been passed allowing widows to remarry, long-standing religious tradition holds that widows are unclean, and most people are unaware of the new law (as one widow wryly remarks, "We do not always follow the laws when it's inconvenient"). Kalyani and Chuyia's plight inspires another widow, Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), to help them and, in doing so, break her own chains in the process.
In one very telling scene in Water, Shakuntala speaks with an older Brahmin who leads the widows in spiritual studies. He asks her if she's feeling any closer to moksha, the evolving of the soul. "If self-liberation means detachment from worldly desires," she replies. "Then no, I am no closer." While the face of Mehta's film deals with the subordination of women (a note at the end of the film estimates that many of the over 34 million widows in India still live in conditions similar to those portrayed in the film), the theme throughout is the conflict between religion the commitment to following laws established over 3,500 years ago and conscience, as exemplified by the Gandhi-following Narayana (whose name means "moving water" in Hindu). It's a conflict close to Mehta's heart a native of India who works in Canada, she's extremely unpopular with Indian conservatives because of her previous films in the trilogy. She originally intended for Water to be released in 2000, but even though the production was given official permission by the Indian government, she received death threats and protesters burned her sets, shutting down production. It took another four years for Mehta to raise the money to finish her film in Sri Lanka the irony that it would be greeted with such antipathy in modern India, some 70 years after the picture's setting, is significant. What shouldn't get lost in all of this text and subtext is that Water is a beautiful picture, with a genuinely moving story that's full of small moments of joy and laughter, plus a rich, poignant score by Mychael Danna (Capote, Monsoon Wedding) and drop-dead gorgeous cinematography by Giles Nuttgen (Bee Season, The Deep End). As a document of the inhumane treatment that women suffer in cultures controlled by fundamentalist religions, it's poignant and important and as cinema, it's an extraordinary achievement.
Fox's DVD release of Water features an excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that's rich and vibrant, fully doing justice to Nuttgen's camerawork. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (in Hindi, with optional English and Spanish subtitles) is also quite good. Extras include an uneven commentary track by Mehta, which ranges from interesting anecdotes on the production and tidbits about Indian culture to tedious descriptions of what's on-screen; a behind-the-scenes featurette offering interviews with the film's stars, with the odd exception of Sarala (20 min.), and "The Story Behind the Making of Water," which offers television news footage of the protests against Mehta and the film (4 min.). Keep-case.