In February of 2000, a mob of 2,000 Hindu fundamentalists overran and destroyed the film set where Deepa Mehta was set to shoot “Water”, the third part of her India trilogy. The movie’s cast was forced to leave the country and the film was later shot secretly in Sri Lanka.

Like its predecessors “Fire” (1996), which explored gender and lesbianism in India and “Earth” (1998), which looked at the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, “Water” digs deep into issues that many in India are reluctant to discuss. Now that it has finally been released, it is easy to see why defenders of tradition would want to thwart it. Set in the late 1930s against a backdrop of social upheaval and the quest for national independence, the movie explores the lives and the changing expectations of India’s ultimate outcasts: widows.

The film is packed with emotional scenes, bordered by breaks of comical moments. Much of the levity comes from the spirited lead character, Chuyia (Sarala), a feisty eight-year-old child widow who is brought by her father to a widow’s ashram in the holy city of Varanasi shortly after her husband dies. Chuyia rejects her new life, in which she is forbidden to see her family again, to remarry, to eat hot food or grow long hair and is expected instead to embrace a life of chastity and begging on street corners, while being draped in white for the rest of her life.

Living at the ashram, Chuyia meets the young and naive Kalyani (Lisa Ray). Kalyani is pimped in order to pay the ashram’s expenses by the bitter and vulgar-tongued Madhumati (Manorama), an elderly widow who rules the house with an iron hand.

John Abraham, star of action-packed Bollywood films, such as Karam, (2005) Paap, (2004) and Jism (2002) steps out of those song and dance numbers to play a more serious role as Narayan, a
radicalized, upper caste law student and follower of Mahatma Ghandi, who pushes to change India’s feudal traditions and ultimately falls in love with Kalyani.

The humble and faithful Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) who is known for Bollywood films like Pinjar (2003) and Bandit Queen (1994) becomes a mother figure for the young Chuyia. Shakuntala is a devout follower of Hindu scriptures, who only gradually begins to question the cruel conditions that her faith requires widows to endure.

“Water” is a breath of fresh air at a time when Indian cinema has come to be dominated by song-and-dance sets that often overshadow true issues that hit hard at home. After all, India has 34 million widows, many of whom are still shunned by society.

“Water” will be playing at the Angelika Film Center at 18 W. Houston St. at least until June 15.