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Drowning Souls

When politicians tout the sanctity of marriage and religious zealots rave about marriage being the bedrock of civilization as we know it (that is, the United States), they act like all marriages happen willingly and survive happily into the couple's golden years. Just because marriage is a very old institution does not mean that everything about it should be sanctioned. For example, societies steeped in tradition, ceremony, and religion have not always been kind to widows -- even when they are young girls.

The third film in Deepa Mehta's "elemental" trilogy (after Fire in 1996 and Earth in 1998), Water examines the lingering, devastating effects of the 1,500-year-old Law of Manu, which prescribes how women who outlive their husbands must live: "A widow should be long suffering until death, self-restrained and chaste. A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven. A woman who is unfaithful to her husband is reborn in the womb of a jackal." Not exactly what a young girl should have to hear after the middle-aged (or older) husband that she barely knows dies of old age.

Nine-year-old Chuyia (first-timer Sarala) is sent to a widow's ashram to live out her life in isolation from society -- and a normal childhood -- while the considerably older women there raise her in their humble surroundings. At first Chuyia's emotional outbursts wreak havoc on the relative calm in the ashram; later, her constant questioning of the way things are prompts some of them to ponder (perhaps once again) their miserable existence.

Kalyani (globally popular star Lisa Ray) appears as an intriguing character. She is the only one to befriend Chuyia. Living separately from the other women, she is the only one with long hair. She also has a puppy, despite the rules against it. Given her deprived living situation, she perhaps is too beautifully made up. At least there's a reason for it.

Her desperate secret exposes an inherent lie in the whole setup that restricts these women's lives: The widow in charge of the group forces her to defy the Law of Manu in order to keep the ashram clothed and fed. These women otherwise must beg for their sustenance.

Not surprisingly, power plays are everywhere in this unlikely collective; so are vivid characters whose behavior is at times enraging, pathetic, calculating, and humbling -- and sometimes genuinely funny. Water is an ensemble piece that features a few standouts.

Child actress Sarala is one of them. She exhibits all the effervescence you'd expect in a child, yet her character exudes an air of confidence and genuine good will that impresses the older women.

Set in India during the 1930s, just as Mahatma Gandhi was gaining popularity across the social classes, Water hints at momentous changes to come. Narayan (Bollywood heartthrob John Abraham) eschews his Brahmin place in society to follow the heart, whether for the widow Kalyani or the political/spiritual leader Gandhi.

At times politically provocative, at other times romantically gauzy, and always beautifully photographed, Water is awash in bright colors as it portrays lives of gray. In many ways, it's a loving, yet critical trek through the strata of Indian culture.

Director Mehta undertook this film at considerable risk to her life. Initial shooting in India was disrupted by religious extremists in 2000 when they destroyed the set and threatened the filmmaker's life. She could resume only later in Sri Lanka -- in secret and with a different cast. Her effort was worth it. Even though contemporary Indian society has changed much in 70 years, some traditions continue. Mehta's film shines a stark light on serious gender-based discrimination in India in order to drag it out from under the long shadow of faith and tradition.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars