'Water': Irrepressibly Drawn

John Abraham and young Sarala star in
John Abraham and young Sarala star in "Water," Deepa Mehta's moving film about a child widow in 1930s India. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Friday, May 5, 2006

"Water," set in 1930s India, is something pretty rare in the world of movies: an artistic muckraker. It is superb and strange at once, a discreet and self-disciplined attack dog of a movie.

The subject is the issue of "widow wastage." Possibly no term exists in English to convey the cultural tradition; it's a kind of continuation, by less fiery means, of sati, the practice of immolating a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. As writer-director Deepa Mehta dramatizes it, when a man dies, his widow is a financial burden to all. Thus she is consigned to an ashram, a kind of rooming house/prison for widows.

Just such a thing occurs when poor Chuyia (magically portrayed by Sarala) is left at an ashram by her embittered father. But Chuyia, who was a child bride of 8, is one of those peculiarly resilient people; soon enough she's got the whole place in a clamor, with her indefatigable energy, curiosity and optimism. She flits from room to room and in one discovers the lively, beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray).

A young man (John Abraham) also notices Kalyani, and he wonders why he can't take her as a wife. He happens to be a wealthy student, a follower of Gandhi, and for that reason, the rules that clamp down on society seem less binding than ever before.

Even as reform seems close at hand, however, the traditional obligations impose tragedy upon the ashram: One of the duties of the widows is to perform the occasional act of prostitution; thus Kalyani is selected for the job. Even worse is the fate that awaits the irrepressible Chuyia.

The movie veers now and then toward the bathetic as some of the fates that befall the innocent women seem heavily manipulated for maximum horror and outrage, though, characteristically, Mehta looks away at the moment of utmost horror.

-- Stephen Hunter

Water PG-13, 117 minutes Contains implied sexual situations. In Hindi with subtitles. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and AMC Loews Dupont.

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