Water contains a love story; a young lawyer from a wealthy Brahmin family sees the beautiful widow in the street. It is love at first sight, a relationship that transgresses the taboo against widows and the caste system. Mehta gave the part of the lawyer to a Bollywood star and India's most celebrated male model, John Abraham. Although he plays the role of a recent law-school graduate circa 1938, he appears in the film sporting the kind of 3-day beard that currently seems required of young male actors. That said, Ray and Abraham give winning performances. Ray's character, Kalyani, is a simple, uneducated woman—the lotus that preserves its innocence even as it floats in corruption. Ray is superb within those parameters. Abraham's character is a Gandhian idealist who has to convince us that he truly feels love and is not just a fool—a task in which he succeeds.
More daring was Mehta's selection of the 8-year-old widow, Chuyia, the feisty girl who will challenge the traditions of the ashram. When the film begins, we see the child sucking on a stalk of sugar cane and riding on the back of a wagon through the countryside. A man is stretched out on the wagon bed and she cheekily pokes his feet; only later do we realize that he is the child's dying husband. It seems the marriage has not been consummated and there has been no wedding, but this little girl is about to become a widow. Her parents piously abandon her in the ashram, and her head is shaved in a ritual of degradation. It is difficult to imagine a more poignant demonstration of the tragic human cost that may be exacted by orthodoxy.
Since Mehta was now filming in Sri Lanka, she began searching there for a child to play Chuyia. The girl she discovered, Sarala, did not speak Hindi and had to learn all of her lines by rote. However, she is a spirited presence who speaks the lines that one imagines are closest to Mehta's heart: "Where are all the male widows?" she asks.
The ashram is peopled with crones from Fellini movies, and their ensemble acting is superb. Madhumati, the greedy matriarch of the ashram who ruthlessly exploits Kalyani to satisfy her appetites, is still shown to us in all her humanity—a tribute to both Mehta and the actress's talent. But it is the widow Shakuntala, played by the great Indian actress Seema Biswas (known to Western audiences for her role as Phoolan Devi in Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen) whose performance holds the film together. Shakuntala is the conscience and quiet strength of the ashram. She is the character who mediates the struggle between deep religious faith and the truth as she sees and understands it. She struggles to resolve this not out of self-interest—she accepts her own fate as a widow—but out of her concern for Chuyia and Kalyani.
When, despite the religious taboos and his parents' high social position, the lawyer resolves to marry the beautiful illiterate widow, tragedy ensues. He is escorting her to his home across the river when she recognizes the way: she has been his father's prostitute. She insists on turning back and later drowns herself in the river where she has so often cleansed her body and her soul.
This is not the worst that can happen in Mehta's tragic imagination. The obese crone, not to be denied her luxuries, sends the innocent Chuyia across the river to the rich Brahmins. The horrified Shakuntala is waiting at the dock when the feisty child, now devastated, returns the next morning. She takes the child in her arms to the railroad station where Gandhi is making a brief stop. If there is hope in this corrupted world, she finds it in Gandhi, not in the religious tradition she has followed. With Chuyia in her arms she listens with the throngs of people to Gandhi's message. He reenters the train, and it slowly begins to leave the station. Shakuntala now knows what to do: chasing the train with the child in her arms, she spots the lawyer who is leaving with Gandhi. Desperately she hands the ruined child over to his care.
Preposterous, yes! Melodramatic, yes! But in this it is like many great movies. There was not a dry eye in the audience as that train moved into the distance. With Water, Mehta has proved that she is more than an angry iconoclast. A gifted filmmaker, she has given desperation a human face.
WATER Written and directed by by Deepa Mehta • Fox Searchlight • DVD released in 2006