India's Deepa Mehta made a Cannes splash with her first feature in 1991, got discovered by George Lucas to direct Young Indiana Jones shows, then got fundamentalist death threats for making the breakthrough 1996 Hindi lesbian film Fire. (Water completes the trilogy also including 1998's Earth.) One day she noticed a widow in Benares, coldly ignored by the pilgrim passersby en route to wash their sins away in the sacred Ganges. She says India has 34 million widows, expected to beg, shut themselves away, or bury themselves alive in grief and not to burden their families. So in 2000, Mehta decided to scrub a few sins off her country's conscience with this unfortunately not-quite-fictitious melodrama about an 8-year-old widowed child bride in 1938, who's condemned to a TB-infested ashram that doubles as a call-girl service.
The Hindu equivalent of the Christian right rioted, burned Mehta's film set, and dumped it in the water. Authorities cravenly craving right-wing votes ran her out of the country. Heroically, she finished the flick under a false title in Sri Lanka, then later beat David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan for Canuck festival honors last fall in Toronto (her adopted hometown).
Though inescapably a message movie, Water is also very glossy and excellently cast. Sarala brings a winning simplicity to the lead role of Chuyia, the shaven-headed child widow. Manorama is great as the widows' madam, a vile, Jabba the Hut–like pothead crone in cahoots with a sinister transvestite pimp (Raghuvir Yadav). Lisa Ray is radiant as Kalyani, a gorgeous young widow who's permitted to keep her hair long because she's the ashram's top-earning mattressback. Like the saintly heroine of Breaking the Waves, Kalyani believes that God has chosen her for a spiritual test. Being ferried to her nightly assignations with rich, evil Brahmins, she reflects that she must live "like the beautiful lotus flower, untouched by the dirty water in which it resides."
Fortunately, the social-equality message of Gandhi is also in the air, and one of his followers, a crusading attorney played by former model John Abraham, arrives to help Kalyani and the other oppressed widows. He's a charming Prince Charming, and Water does play like a fairy-tale fable under a magical light. But the light it casts on Indian traditions is decidedly dark.