Water, Deepa Metha's luminous film about cloistered widows in 1938 India, debuted to critical acclaim at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but it has opened in only 91 U.S. theaters. Yet in two months Water grossed $2.3 million, keeping it among the top-30 movie moneymakers.
The film (rated PG-13 with English subtitles) opens with a river voyage for 8-year-old Chuyia (Sarala), whose much older husband has just died. Unaware that her life is about to change, Chuyia munches raw sugar cane on her way to an ashram for widows where, in adherence to Hindu texts, she will remain an outcast the rest of her life.
Shaved and shunned, the precocious, round-faced beauty learns soon enough that, in spite of her pluck, her life is over. And the ashram is no benign confinement. To buy subsistence food for the widows and support her own drug habit, a huge bully of a widow named Madhumati-or "Fatty," as Chuyia calls her-contracts with a Brahmin pimp (and hermaphrodite) to sell the loveliest widows into prostitution.
Yet in Water the true-to-life story of their desperation gains depth, even humor. Chuyia's grit runs down to her toes, which clutch the floor as the razor bites her head and take her through stone-gray streets as she tries to escape. There she bumps into the law student and Gandhi protégé Narayan (Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham), whose love for the widow Kalyani (Lisa Ray) provides the only hope of a new life.
Indian-born director Mehta, who now lives in Canada, took a lot of heat from radical Hindu protesters for making Water, but the film condemns the widow houses more as a cultural phenomenon than for the Hindu teaching that created them.
Water's strong-faithed characters, from the thoughtful and devoted widow Shakuntala to a brief appearance by Mahatma Gandhi himself, can muster only faint praise to the Hindu gods, but they won't shake them. And when Shakuntala takes flight with Chuyia, it is a measure of the story's epic despair that their next best hope lies in the quasi-religious nationalism of Gandhi.