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'Water' Completes Indian Film Trilogy

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Filmmaker Deepa Mehta has been chronicling the challenges facing women in her native India. First came her movie Earth, about religious divisions and how they disrupt families. Then came Fire, which dealt with two women who discover they love each other more than they love their husbands. Both pictures got Mehta in hot water with traditionalists. And Bob Mondello says her new film, called Water, has done the same.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

The year is 1938. The place, the Holy City of Varanasi. And the first thing on screen is an explanation of traditional India's attitudes towards widows. Just as a wife was regarded as half her husband's body when he was alive, so she became half his corpse when he died. She was expected to live out the rest of her life in mourning, renouncing the world, cloistered with other widows.

As that paragraph fades from the screen, we see a cheerful uncomprehending seven-year-old name Chuyia, kicking her feet on the back of a cart. It's carrying the relatives who've recently joined Chuyia in an arranged marriage to a much older and now feverish husband. He is all too clearly dying as they travel. And that night her father wakes her up to ask if she remembers being married.

(Soundbite of Water)

MONDELLO: You're a widow now, he tells her. For how long, Chuyia wonders?

(Soundbite of Water)

MONDELLO: And he looks at her with the saddest eyes. Then Chuyia's long, beautiful hair is shaved off. And she's dressed all in white, like all the widows in a world where saris mostly look like rainbows. And she's dropped off at a cloister, where she will help support the house's sisterhood by begging on the streets.

(Soundbite of Water)

MONDELLO: Chuyia's father is bereft as he leaves her, never to see her again. But tradition, supported by religion, has taken the decision out of his hands. He knows life in the cloister will be hard, but Chuyia is irrepressible. She makes friends with widows, toothless and ancient, patient and middle-aged, and a beautiful young widow who falls in love with a handsome guy who loves her back.

1938 is not a time that will be kind to those who flout tradition. But in this richly human film, director Deepa Mehta holds out a glimmer of hope for Chuyia, and for the widows who will come later. Mahatma Gandhi is drawing crowds then, and times in India are changing, slowly but changing.

Like Mehta's other pictures, Water is as exquisite to look at as it is resonant. Also, like her other films, in its call for fairness and justice for women, Mehta's Water runs deep.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

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