Chuyia, seven years old, doesn’t remember her elderly husband or getting married, but when he dies, her father takes her to a house of widows, on the banks of the Ganges. There she’ll live, unmarriageable and shunned as worthless, until she dies. Like the dozens of women there, her head is shaved to show her new status. Only one woman has kept her hair – eighteen year old Kalyani, who the home’s matriarch pimps around the river to wealthy men in the area. By chance Kalyani meets Narayan, an idealistic follower of Gandhi, who falls in love with her.
If this sounds an unpalatable collision of social realism and melodrama, it’s not. All Mehta’s characters and relationships convince and the result is a gripping, humane, beautiful-looking film. By the end, when Mehta turns around her stirring romantic tale, her film attains another, higher level altogether: resonant, hard-edged, tragic and deeply moving. Water deserves to be widely seen – the Hindu nationalists who tried to stop the film with demonstrations and death threats must be raging.