Correction to This Article
In a May 5 Style review of the movie "Water," the character Madhumati  the ashram matriarch, played by the actress Manorama  was incorrectly identified as Gulabi.

Deepa Mehta's 'Water': The Depths of Despair

As the youngest widow, Sarala (with Seema Biswas) brightens a bleak existence.
As the youngest widow, Sarala (with Seema Biswas) brightens a bleak existence. (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2006

"Water" is something pretty rare in the world of movies: an artistic muckraker.

It represents two furiously opposed sensibilities on the part of writer-director Deepa Mehta. One is politico-cultural protest, and cries for reform fueled by rage: She yearns to tear a practice down, to scatter its ashes and bones, to end it once and for all.

But the other impulse is refined, artistic: She yearns to evoke her theme minimally, with a poet's or a pastelist's delicacy, to suggest but never bludgeon, to persuade without giving speeches.

The result is superb and strange at once, a discreet and self-disciplined attack dog of a movie.

The subject was so incendiary -- literally -- that the set was attacked by the enraged benighted, and burned. Mehta, her actors and crew had to flee from India to Sri Lanka, where (with George Lucas's help) they ultimately prevailed.

And what causes mobs to burn movie sets these days? Religious desecration? Pro-child-abuse arguments? Untouchables actually being touched? Sacred cows treated non-sacredly?

It's something you'd never guess, here in ye olde smug West: 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 suttee, the practice of immolating a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. As Mehta dramatizes it (the time has been safely removed to 70 years ago, in the late 1930s, but the mob's reaction suggests it is still rife), when a man dies, his widow is a financial burden to all, and nobody wishes to take it up. Thus she is consigned to an ashram, a kind of rooming house for widows, and there sentenced to life imprisonment, no matter her age. She lives with other widows in theoretically chaste isolation, impoverished, surviving on charity, subsistence gardening and occasional if discreet prostitution. This is hard enough on any woman, harder still on a young woman in her twenties, but tragic for a child bride of 8 or so, who may not have even known her "husband" (the arranged marriage was for financial reasons between families) and is suddenly uprooted and dumped among strangers -- forever!

Just such a thing occurs when poor Chuyia (magically portrayed by Sarala) is left at an ashram by an embittered father who also does not understand why society dictates this fate for his innocent daughter. "Where's Ma?" Chuyia shrieks as the doors close, sealing her off forever.

But Chuyia, it soon develops, 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's everywhere, lighting the place up.

For a while, then, "Water" is a member of an almost vanished genre: It's a boardinghouse movie. Chuyia flits from room to room and in each she discovers a new feature of the universe, from the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), far too lively to be shut up forever, to the imposing Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), the matriarchal figure who runs the ashram, to the embittered Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), middle-aged and extremely capable, but nevertheless secretly angry at what has happened to her life.

Outside the walls, the sacred river Ganges rolls by, standing for a society that has no need of and takes no notice of the women consigned to this bleak fate; meanwhile, as best they can, they struggle on.

But change is in the air; a young man notices the beautiful Kalyani and wonders why he can't take her as a wife. He happens to be a wealthy student, a follower of a man called 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, traditional obligations impose tragedy upon the ashram: One of the duties of the widows is to perform the occasional act of prostitution, to keep the economic enterprise afloat; thus Kalyani is selected for the job, and the client in this case turns out to be the father of one of her boyfriend's best friends. 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 shock and outrage, though, characteristically, Mehta looks away at the moment of utmost horror, believing that what is implied and then imagined is more powerful than what is shown.

Water (117 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and AMC Loews Dupont) is rated PG-13 for implied sexual situations.

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