The Indian-Canadian writer-director Deepa Mehta, whose last film was the misfired cross-cultural parody Bollywood/Hollywood, displays a far richer understanding of the cinema of her native land in Water, which hitches some of the most irresistible conventions of Hindi movie melodrama to an earnest agenda of social protest (which also got it banned in India). Racing to catch a train is a suspense device as old as cinema; but when the goal in the race is saving a stubbornly self-reliant, eight-year-old cloistered widow from being sold into prostitution circa 1938, you may find yourself falling for it anyway, and happily.
The target here is the orthodox Hindu prohibition against the remarriage of widows, who are quarantined in ashrams because their very shadows are regarded as polluted. After the death of the aged husband she's never met, the child widow Chuyia (Sarala) is abandoned in one of these moldy ruins beside the Ganges, where she instantly sparks conflict. Set upon by the withered and selfish older women, she seeks refuge with a couple of good eggs, the ferocious and devout Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), and the radiant Kalyani (Lisa Ray), who finances the establishment by working as a prostitute, catering to the same upper-caste nobles whose class enforces the oppression of widows.
A former model who in Bollywood has played mostly femme fatale roles, Ray seems to have been cast mostly for her innate qualities, especially for the searching curiosity in her wide blue eyes, and in one of those maddening chemical injustices that make movies so interesting to analyze, Water is probably stronger for it. When Kalyani is tenderly courted by Narayana (John Abraham), an idealistic young Brahmin attorney, Ray all but vibrates with her awareness of the possibility of freedom. Abraham, too, began his show-biz career as a model, and looks it, and in many ways he's the film's weakest link, partly because the character has been written as an unconflicted, progressive paragon who never suffers an inconvenient spasm of anger or resentment, even when he learns that Kalyani, who by now has agreed to marry him, sneaks out at night to service the local gentry. It probably helps take the edge off for him that, in spite of all she's been through, this only-in-the-movies saintly hooker has somehow managed to retain her dewy innocence.
Water is manipulative propaganda in service of a good cause. The "argument" in the script has been so carefully worked out as to seem preconceived or programmatic. But melodrama and propaganda have always been cousins under the skin, and you can't embrace either form without learning to savor a predictability that can be oddly reassuring because it confirms us in a certain view of life. Furthermore, there are a couple of rapt, gazing shots of Ray and Abraham, framed together against the inky cobalt blue of cinematographer Giles Nuttgens' midnight riverscapes, in which they look like Hindu deities in a 19th-century icon painting. The emotions generated by a shot like this slither right past our critical faculties.