What's all the fuss about? Simply that Mehta had the temerity to make a film about the virtual imprisonment of Hindu widows in her native country -- tens of millions of women shunned by their patriarchal society in the years before India's independence. Supported by the state government in Uttar Pradesh, Hindu fundamentalists terrorized Mehta at every turn. She is now widely regarded as a sister-in-persecution to her countryman Salman Rushdie, the novelist who became the target of an Islamic fatwa for his irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad in The Satanic Verses.
Mehta was not to be thwarted. Water is the final chapter in her so-called "Elements" trilogy, and it is the most powerful. In 1997's Fire, she addressed contemporary Indian life in a story about gender roles and rigid moral codes; two years later, Earth tackled the bloody Hindu-Muslim rivalries that plagued India in 1947, after withdrawing British colonialists left the country -- along with newly formed Pakistan -- to its own devices. Even more assured than its predecessors, Water is set in 1938 in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, which in March was beset by new outbreaks of sectarian violence. Mehta, who frequently speaks about India's "collective amnesia" when it comes to confronting religious and cultural clashes, is obviously determined to remind her fellow citizens of a time when Hindu widows, many of them very young, were abandoned to lifelong suffering by those who regarded them as the worthless residue of their dead husbands.
The film's heroines are a bewildered eight-year-old named Chuyia (played by Sarala, a child chosen from a village in Sri Lanka) who, due to the untimely demise of her spouse, is sent to live in an ashram for widows, and a beautiful woman in her twenties, Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who is regarded as the jewel of the place -- not least because she's the inmates' meal ticket. The women are forbidden to create new lives or remarry, and they're also required to pay "rent" and cover expenses: Immune to irony and bereft of shame, the ashram's stern matriarch (played by veteran Indian actress Manorama) regularly ferries Kalyani across the sacred Ganges, where she is forced to prostitute herself to the chauvinist Brahmins on the far shore.
Two rays of hope light this bleak scenario. The great Indian liberationist Mohandas Gandhi is on the rise, and we sense from the beginning that the film's tiny protagonist may break her shackles and find future freedom.
At the end of Water, a stunning postscript appears on the screen, informing us that 34 million Indian widows still live in officially sanctioned isolation. Obviously, this filmmaker's work is not done.