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'Water' sad but beautiful

Reel Critics

May 12, 2006|By SUSANNE PEREZ

The exquisitely bittersweet "Water," written and directed by Deepa Mehta, gives Westerners a surprising look at how the old ways flourish in India in the midst of a changing world.

The story takes place in 1938 and centers around Chuyia, a beautiful 8-year-old girl who doesn't remember getting married but has now become a widow. Following sacred Hindu customs, her head is shaved, she must wear a plain white sari, and she is banished by her parents to live the rest of her days in a shabby home for widows by the Ganges River. Uncomprehending, Chuyia waits for her mother to come back for her.

According to custom, widows have three options: to be cremated with their dead husbands, live secluded lives or marry the husband's younger brother. They live in poverty and earn money for food and rent by begging.

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But shockingly, some Indian men have an "uncontrolled concern" for the widows ? at least, the younger ones ? and use them as prostitutes.

One of these women, the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray) befriends Chuyia. They meet handsome student and Gandhi follower Narayana (John Abraham), and it's forbidden love at first sight for him and Kalyani. Their love story is like a fairy tale, but how is a happy ending possible?

Chuyia is also looked after by Shakuntula (Seema Biswas), also called "Didi," who has started to question her faith and the wisdom of these traditions. She is the film's conscience, and she does not fully agree that widows deserve such hollow lives, especially when they are still in the prime of life. When Narayana tells her it all comes down to money, Didi's stunned face speaks volumes.

Beautifully filmed and acted, "Water" portrays the sadness and humiliation these women must endure as outcasts of society. Indeed, there are widows in rural India who live like this today.

This film has provoked the wrath of Hindu fundamentalists, so much so that Mehta had to stop filming in 2000 and restart production several years later in Sri Lanka. It was worth the wait.

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