In February 2000, the sets for the movie Water were built and filming had begun on the ghats that run along the Ganges River in India's holy city of Varanasi (Benares). The location of the film was critical to writer/director Deepa Mehta's story of a widows' ashram on the banks of the Ganges, where 14 women lived in penury and constant prayer, condemned by their husbands' deaths and shunned by ordinary people as omens of bad luck.
With white saris and shaved heads, sick and elderly widows traditionally come from all across India to Varanasi with the belief that if they die in the holy city and have their ashes spread on the sacred waters of this river, their souls will find peace. A decade earlier, Mehta had seen one such widow—a skeleton-thin elderly woman on her hands and knees, blindly searching for her lost spectacles while passing pilgrims avoided her. Mehta's unshakable memory of that widow, "bent over like a shrimp," would eventually inspire the screenplay for Water. Following the films Fire in 1996 and Earth in 1998, this film was to complete what she called the "Elemental Trilogy."
Water is set in 1938 during the rise of Gandhi. Although by then the infamous tradition of suttee—the burning of women on their husbands' funeral pyres—had long since been abandoned, widows were still required under Hindu law to retreat from the world and to live a life of mourning and penitence. According to Hindu belief, the sins of women in their past lives had caused the deaths of their husbands. The harsh consequences of these beliefs were compounded by the practice of arranged marriages, in which young girls could be given as brides to old and even dying husbands.
In Water, Mehta's ashram includes an 8-year-old widow who is destined to live her entire life in severe discipline—while the obese old matriarch who rules the ashram supports her appetite for forbidden sweets and bhang (a form of hashish) by selling the services of a beautiful widow (played by Lisa Ray) to rich Brahmin men on the other side of the river.
The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting—which censors and approves screenplays in India before they can be shot—granted Mehta all of the necessary permits to film along the river. However, Hindu fundamentalists, who had been fulminating about Mehta's sacrilegious treatment of holy scriptures ever since Fire was released, torched the sets, threw them in the Ganges, and burned effigies of Mehta.
When Fire was released in India, the fundamentalists had thrown Molotov cocktails at the screen and closed down theaters. With Water, they threatened escalating violent protests if filming continued. The local authorities of Uttar Pradesh were unable to guaran- tee adequate protection, and Mehta had to look for alternative sites in which to shoot the film. It took 4 years to find a substitute, but beside the still waters of Bolgoda Lake in Sri Lanka, Mehta created a timeless Varanasi of the imagination.
The set design is one of the many stunning accomplishments of the film; every shot of Giles Nuttgen's cinematography is a work of art, and there are moments of serene beauty. Indeed, Water, which was finally completed in 2005 and released in the United States in 2006, is far and away Mehta's greatest achievement and deserves comparison with the Indian cinema masterwork, the Apu trilogy, by writer/director Satyajit Ray.