'Water" is one heavy guilt trip. The third and final chapter in writer-director Deepa Mehta's "elemental trilogy" ("Fire" in 1996 and "Earth" in 1998 are the other installments) was also the most difficult to make. Hindu fundamentalists protested the film when it was shooting in Varanasi, and the production had to be remounted in Sri Lanka years later. (Former Mehta employer George Lucas had a hand in the movie's perseverance. He took out a full-page ad in Variety supporting Mehta's making of the film.)
It's easy to see why fundamentalists were doing everything in their power to shut the movie down, since Mehta shines her camera on the religious Hindu traditions that still primitively oppress women. The movie eventually makes you feel guilty for something Indian men have been doing to their women for centuries.
Set in India circa 1938, it starts with cute, little Chuyia, played by cute, little newcomer Sarala. She's a joyful girl who becomes a widow at the age of eight, dooming her to a life of virtual chastity and public contempt when she is forced to live in a dilapidated ashram for widows.
After first raging against the ways of Hindu widow living (shaved head, wardrobe of nothing but white robes), Chuyia begins to bond with the fellow widows. She finds surrogate moms in devout, hard-hearted Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) and the beautiful, romantic Kalyani (Lisa Ray, pinch-hitting for Nandita Das, who starred in the other trilogy films), a widow who gets to keep her hair, since she is forced to work as a prostitute by the head widow (Manorama).
Although it's an Indian-Canadian joint venture (the Indian-born Mehta is based in Toronto), "Water" is about as Hollywood as a promise of "Let's do lunch." A movie that's as gloriously sweeping as it is miserably heart-wrenching, Mehta's big girl-power blowout-of-a-movie is just the kind of exotic, universally appealing, sentimental spectacle that ends up getting mainstream love as well as best foreign film nods during awards season. But she kinda overdoes it when it comes to making us feel these ladies' pain. The love story between Ray and John Abraham's good-hearted, Gandhi-following law student is so Krispy Kreme doughnut-sweet and schmaltzy, you know it can only end badly. But it isn't until the climax, when the film brings one of its characters to a wretched apex, that you'll throw up your hands out of sheer exhaustion.
For a few moments, "Water" does deliver justified, honest, visually poetic moments of emotional agony. A death scene with one of the widows early in the movie did get me, as Denis Leary would say, right in the cockles of my heart. That was, until I realized that, as the movie progressed, it's one of several. A good-intentioned movie that has no idea when to quit, "Water" tugs at your heartstrings and never lets go -- even after it has made its point, scenes ago.
Staff writer Craig D. Lindsey can be reached at 829-4760, firstname.lastname@example.org or blogs.newsobserver.com/unclecrizzle.