Water is the third film in Deepa Mehta’s Elemental Trilogy, following 1996’s Fire and 1998’s Earth. Outcasts of Indian society, widows must be loyal to their deceased husbands or, according to the laws of Manu, be reborn in the belly of a jackal. After eight-year-old Chuyia loses her husband, her father takes her to the ashram (an orphanage of sorts, where widows live in poverty until their deaths). There, Chuyia befriends Kalyani (Lisa Ray), the only widow left with long hair, and her puppy. Sent to the mansions of the Gentry across the Ganges, Kalyanin is an outcast to even the widows, though they rely on her services for their food. Kalyani happens by a young law student named Narayan, who falls in love with her, but when Madhumati, the slovenly matriarch of the house finds out Kalyani is engaged, Madhumati shears her hair and locks her into her room in the ashram.
Beginning with unbearably beautiful footage of water lilies we’re told are so fragrant they can be located from great distances, we see groups and cultures alternately separated and joined by the Ganges. Spiritual, metaphorical, and emotional, the widows are geographically confined by and to the river. The water as a source of necessity and bondage is referred to by each widow’s story, most notably in the story of the devoutly religious housemother, Shakuntala, who prays to overcome the pain and contradictions of her cruel lot. Unjustly victim to the same religious system to which she’s faithful, her confines are a strange necessity to her as is the water to the lilies. Eventually it’s her stalwart dedication that changes this cycle of victimhood.