The Littlest Widow 

Given this background and the noble aspiration of the film to bring into a focus an inhumane tradition still sometimes observed in India, it would be nice to report that "Water" is a triumph. But Mehta, who also wrote the screenplay, allows her good intentions and moral indignation to get in the way of her craft.

Although the movie abounds in images both beautiful and hauntingly pathetic, its melodramatic plot is populated by heroes and villains right out of central casting. Such simplifications might further the film's political effectiveness in India, but they keep it from rising much above the level of very competently constructed agitprop.

Set in 1938, when child marriage was still common, the film follows the fate of 8-year-old Chuyia, the widow of a man she doesn't live with and can't remember marrying. Her parents dutifully, if sadly, deliver her up to the ashram for widows, prominently decorated with Hindu swastikas that, intentionally, one supposes, remind us of the Nazi variety then so much in vogue. The girl is by far the youngest person there, and she immediately rebels, but in an impeccably impish, life-affirming way that veers into Shirley Temple territory. She buys sweets for an ancient inmate in her second childhood, sasses the harpy who runs the place, befriends a puppy, asks tough questions. When, in all innocence, she wonders aloud where the ashram for widowers is, her fellow prisoners suggest tearing out her tongue and throwing it into the Ganges.

Most important, she meets the young and lovely Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who even by the deplorable prevailing standards is cruelly exploited, her beauty sinisterly bound up with the institution's finances. When Kalyani attracts the attention of Narayana (John Abraham, a Bollywood fixture), a handsome, well-heeled Gandhian Brahmin fresh from law school, the second main plot is established, complementing the pathos of Chuyia's tale with a grown-up story of obstructed love. When Kalyani and Narayana first tryst, they dispense with the usual talk of family, childhood and hopes. Instead, Narayana launches into the tender recital of a poem, in Sanskrit, which the woman he's wooing can't understand a word of, and that settles it: The pair are deeply, deeply in love. The gleaming symbol of a new, progressive India embraces the victim of blind tradition.

Unfortunately, these characters never step out of their symbolic roles to become real people. The only exception is a middle-aged, deeply pious widow, beautifully played by Seema Biswas, who is brought to the brink of rejecting the teachings that have lent meaning to her sorrow.

Elsewhere "Water" studiously avoids the religious question at the heart of all this misery. "Disguised as religion," Narayana sternly declares, the practice of turning widows into beggars is "just about money." The movie's sentimental vision rests on the flimsy idea that "real" religion never sanctions cruelty. Are we really to believe that the suicidal protester against this film just didn't want to pay for his mom's food? "Water" tells us that all we need to clear up this mess is Gandhi and a good, healthy dose of tear-inducing fellow feeling. Would that it were true.

That's not to say that "Water" doesn't manage to induce a few tears. By the end, which combines hope and despair in equal measure, sniffles were general in the theater. And some scenes, especially a radiant "color festival" in which the widows joyfully smear their faces with pigment, convey an ecstatic hope far more authentic than Narayana's speechifying does. Had Mehta not been so intent on telling us how to solve the problems she oversimplifies, she clearly could have given us a work of art. (PG-13) 117 min. *** S

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