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by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & Water & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "C & lt;/span & hild," the father whispers as he shakes his tiny daughter awake. "Do you remember getting married?"





"No," the child replies, rubbing a forearm across her sleepy face.


"Your husband is dead. You are a widow now."





Indian film director Deepa Mehta wastes no time in opening Water, a strikingly beautiful and compassionate film set in 1938 that examines the plight of widows in oppressive Hindu society. The film opens with several lines of Hindu sacred text that warn a widow to live a life of self-denial and purity or else risk being reborn in the womb of a jackal.





There's an especially sharp edge here: The film was delayed five years after Hindu extremists rioted, issued death threats against Mehta and the cast, and destroyed all the sets and footage of her first attempt to film Water.


Our guide is Chuyia (child actor Sarala), an 8-year-old bride who, in the opening minutes, goes from being a sassy kid eating sugar cane in the back of a bullock cart to a terrified and angry girl dumped off by her parents at an ashram for widows in the sacred city of Varanasi.





Through Chuyia's eyes, we see a courtyard filled with toothless hags and crones -- many of them bitter, all of them sad, some merely waiting to die. It's frightening as they yell and swipe at her -- and heart-breaking as feisty Chuyia insists that her mother will come get her tomorrow if not this very day.





With Chuyia, we get to ask dumb questions about what is going on here. Why can't widows eat sweets or even be seen? Soon we meet the triangle that runs the Spartan ashram: devout Shakuntala, whose quiet authority is never challenged; fat, manipulative Madhumati, who pimps out the prettier widows to pay the rent; and the prettiest widow, Kalyani, whose hopes for happiness are rekindled when she meets Narayan, an earnest law student and follower of Ghandi.





Like the muscled current of the sacred Ganges, Metha sweeps us through one beautiful scene after another. Water's reflection on the treatment of widows goes deeper than mere diatribe against zealots of one faith. As one character says, "One less mouth to feed. Four saris saved... disguised as religion, it is just about money."

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