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Canadian-based writer and director Deepa Mehta had a turbulent ride trying to get this last of her Elements trilogy filmed. Water, along with its predecessors Fire and Earth, is a self-contained story about a slice of Indian society, and as in some of her previous films, it’s a slice some would rather not have on display.

Protesters, upset with Mehta’s focus on issues that plague her homeland – particularly aspects of the Hindu religion, past and present – destroyed sets, issued death threats against her, and caused production to be shut down on the first day of shooting. After returning to Canada to film Bollywood/Hollywood and The Republic of Love, Mehta persisted with Water and shot secretly in Sri Lanka.

Water is set in 1930s India, during Gandhi’s rise in prominence and before the country’s independence. In the lushly shot film, eight-year-old Chuyia (an astonishingly mature Sarala) is woken by her father’s words: “Do you remember getting married?”

“No,” she sleepily replies.

“Your husband died. You’re a widow now.”

“For how long?” she asks, as we see her father’s stricken face.

In that time and place, Hindu widows were either burned with their deceased husbands’ remains, married to his younger brother, or, as in Chuyia’s case, sent to an ashram for life, where her misfortune cannot contaminate others. Her head is shorn, she must wear the distinctive white sari, and live a cloistered life of deprivation and penitence.

Chuyia meets old women who don’t remember a life before widowhood, women who were once little girls like her who had never met the husband whose death consigned them to a life deemed worthless by those around them. She also meets a beautiful young woman, Kalyani (Lisa Ray, Bollywood/Hollywood), allowed to wear her hair long and luxurious, who is segregated even within the segregated widows, living and eating above the main living quarters. The reason becomes clear to the audience, though not to Chuyia, through whose eyes we see most of the action – Kalyani is the ashram’s most reliable source of income, sent across the holy river Ganges to prostitute herself while the others beg for change in the streets.

Chuyia knows her as the serene but spirited owner of a covert puppy, and the closest she has to a friend among the much older widows. Mehta has assembled a perfect assortment of characters and personalities – these are faces gorgeous in their realism, weathered by age and experience. Most notable are powerful old Madhumati (Manorma), who is no mother figure – as the one who supplies Kalyani’s clients, she’s the madame figure. The nurturing, disciplinarian role falls to Shakuntula (Seema Biswas, Bandit Queen), whose self-control and faith hides her inner turmoil at her fate.

While chasing the runaway dog through the streets of Varanasi, the city where Water is set, Chuyia encounteres Narayan (John Abraham), a law student. When he leads the lost girl back to her companion, he falls instantly in love with the beautiful Kalyani.

This is Water‘s significant flaw, which surprisingly, fortunately, doesn’t sink the film – the love story is shallower than the average romantic comedy. They’re both inhumanly attractive people, their characters are likable and idealistic, and that’s supposed to be enough, I suppose. Most aggravating is that she acts like a different person around him, meek and submissive, with none of the impish exuberance she displays with Chuyia.

Fortunately, the movie’s other depths rescue it from triviality. It’s finely drawn melodrama with enough humour to make the tragedies even more devastating. While Chuyia and Narayan – and his belief in Gandhi’s ideals – represent change on the horizon, Water balances hope with despair.

Explaining the fate of widows, Narayan says: “One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it’s just about money,” in the line that perfectly encapsulates the message of the film. Mehta is not attacking religion – she’s critiquing an interpretation of religion that allows for the degradation of these women.

Though the film is set almost 70 years ago, it ends with the declaration that many widows in India still live in societal and economic repression. Mehta is, of course, scrutinizing part of her culture she feels needs scrutiny. But before Western audience make accusations of third-world barbarism, she urges us to consider the broader message from our own cultural perspective. She points to the practise in Canada of sending elderly relatives to live in institutions, for example, as something she finds shocking.

“We are very good, as different nations and different cultures, to have a collective amnesia about our own [problems],” Mehta told the CBC. “[Water] is about three women trying to break that cycle and trying to find dignity, and trying to get rid of the yoke of oppression, and if it inspires people to do something in their own culture, that’s what’s important.”

Water is now playing in Canadian theatres.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)