I saw 'Water' completely by accident, and had no real intention of ever watching it; I'm glad I did, however, as it is a very good if slightly flawed film. Water (presumably so called because of the dominant presence of a body of water in the film) tells of the fate of Hindu widows in India during the 1930s who are forced to live out their lives as outcasts in widow 'ashrams'. The tale begins with Chuiya (Sarala Kariyawasam), a 7 year old, becoming a widow when her 'husband' (she doesn't even have any recollection of the wedding) dies. She's sent to an ashram but is rebellious and refuses to accept her place there, convinced that her mother will return to take her home. She becomes popular with some of the ashram's other residents, including Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a strong willed and devout woman, and Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young woman used by the cruel head of the ashram as a prostitute. Through Chuiya, Kalyani meets and falls in love with a liberal, independent young man named Narayan (John Abraham); their affair shakes up the ashram and forces its residents to raise questions about the treatment of widows.
A large part of this film serves to highlight the unfair and cruel lives the widows are forced to accept and endure in the name of religious and societal norms. Chuiya acts as a window into their world, and these parts of the film are extremely effective in evoking sympathy while being informative at the same time. 'Water' examines the widows' situation by touching on the different perspectives of society - those of the liberals who are at the forefront of massive societal change spearheaded by Gandhi, and those of the traditional conservatives - in a fairly even handed manner, with thought given to why things are the way they are (though I think there's little question that the film ultimately sees the more progressive viewpoints as being the correct ones).
There are a couple of things that prevent the film from reaching its full potential. One is the lack of a cohesive narrative to tie all of the story elements together; the film sometimes tends to feel too much like a mere recounting of incidents that highlights the plight of widows. The other is that the one genuine narrative thread, the love story, is wholly unconvincing and superficial and is clearly there only as a plot device to explore social restrictions and to create a compelling reason for the status quo to be shaken up.
Given the quality of the film, these negatives don't detract too much however. It's visually stunning with excellent production values and cinematography; if there's a complaint here it's that the painterly look of the film sometimes feels too artificial and detracts from what should be a grittier, more down to earth aesthetic, but that's a minor quibble at best. Writer / director Deepa Mehta clearly had a vision for the film to be informative but not at the expense of dramatic weight and reasonably well rounded characters. Despite the overriding pathos there are also moments of joy and levity sprinkled throughout, though the musical montage and occasional music video like moments take it too far and are a tad jarring.
There are some fine performances in the film, particularly from the young Sarala Kariyawasam, who manages to give a convincing performance as Chuiya without giving off that creepy 'adult in a child's body' vibe that is so prevalent in child actors. I should also add that Lisa Ray is strikingly captivating and is perhaps too good looking for the role, but that's a flaw in the film I'm more than happy to accept!
Overall 'Water' is a film that deserves to be seen. The quality of filmmaking on offer is stellar and the subject matter is weighty and about as underrepresented as it gets in cinema. It may be a little too obvious in its didactic intentions and is a little lacking in terms of narrative, but what it does offer is almost always engaging.