`Water' dripping with unanswered cries

Review B-



According to ancient yet extant Hindu laws, widows of all ages - even child brides who never knew their husbands - should either throw themselves on their spouse's funeral pyre, adopt a life of renunciation, or with the family's permission marry a brother to the deceased. Water offers a fervid outcry against these practices. But this flowery, literary feature too often takes the form of a romance novel rather than robust or muckraking fiction. Set in 1938, primarily to connect the liberation of widows to the calls for truth and justice emanating from the nationalist movement of Mahatma Gandhi, the movie tries for and only sometimes achieves the lyrical, limpid storytelling of Satyajit Ray masterpieces like The Home and the World.

The writer-director, Deepa Mehta, follows an 8-year-old widow (Sarala) into an ashram where she's put into uniform - a plain white robe - and shaved to baldness. She befriends several women. These include a young beauty pimped out to the Brahmin gentry to pay the ashram's bills; a 40ish would-be fatalist who struggles (and fails) to achieve distance from her own sensuality; and an aging prattler whose one source of delight is to remember the treats she savored on her wedding day. Mehta develops their bonds against stark visual contrasts between the inner world of the ashram and the colorful tumult of the river and the street. She generates even starker dramatic contrasts between the humanity of her main characters and the unmitigated repulsiveness of the fat, self-regarding matron (Manorama), the embodiment not of chastity but of curdled appetite and corrupting power.

Water (Fox Searchlight) Starring Seema Biswas, Lisa Ray, John Abraham and Sarala. Directed by Deepa Mehta. Rated PG-13. Time 114 minutes.

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