It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Her father asks Chuyia: "Do you remember getting married?" She does not. He tells her that her husband has died, and she is a widow. She is 8 years old. Under traditional Hindu law, she will be a widow for the rest of her life. There are two alternatives: Marry her husband's brother, or throw herself on his funeral pyre.
Deepa Mehta's "Water" is set in 1938. Even then, laws existed in India that gave widows the freedom to marry, but as one character observes, "We do not always follow the law when it is inconvenient." Torn from her father's grasp, crying out for her mother, Chuyia (Sarala) disappears into an ashram controlled by the lifelong widows who live there. Her hair is cut off. She wears a white garment that marks her. The woman in charge is Madhumati (Manorama), fat, indolent and domineering, who is frightening to the little girl.
Then she makes a friend. This is the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who alone among the widows has been allowed to wear her hair long, but for a sad reason. Madhumati has an arrangement with the pimp Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav) to supply Kalyani to wealthy clients, as a source of income for the ashram. Kalyani has a puppy, which they hide and love together. Another friend in the ashram is Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a wise, thoughtful woman who questions the foundations of the theory of widowhood. It is Narayan (John Abraham), a follower of Gandhi, who supplies the most pragmatic explanation for the ancient practice: "One less mouth to feed, four less saris, and a free corner in the house. Disguised as religion, it's just about money."
"Water" is the third film in a trilogy about India by Deepha Mehta, whose "Earth" (1998) dealt with the partition of India and Pakistan, and whose "Fire" (1996) dealt with lesbianism among traditional Indian women. She is not popular with Indian religious conservatives, and indeed after the sets for "Water" were destroyed and her life threatened, she had to move the entire production to Sri Lanka. That she is a woman and deals with political and religious controversy makes her a marked woman.