'Water', the last film in Deepa Mehta's elements trilogy, after 1996's 'Fire' and 1998's 'Earth', has been a long time coming. Mehta started filming 'Water' in the Indian city of Varanasi in 2000. Hindu fundamentalists, unhappy with a script about the treatment of widows in traditional Indian culture, issued death threats against the Canadian-based Indian director, held demonstrations and eventually burned the film set to the ground. Filming had to be suspended until, four years later under a fake title in Sri Lanka, a determined Mehta finally completed her film.

Set in 1938 during the dying days of colonial India, 'Water' follows the lives of three women condemned under Hindu law to spend the rest of their lives in an ashram, or group home, because they are widows. The arrival of the recently widowed seven-year-old Chuyia (Sarala) into the community shakes everything up. An impudent cherub, she soon makes allies with the religious Shakuntula (Biswas) and beautiful, limpid-eyed Kalyani (Ray). Kalyani is the only widow whose head has not been shaved, all the better for housemother Madhumati (Manorama) to sell her services to the wealthy Brahmin on the other side of the river.

Inspired to rebellion by Chuyia, Kalyani falls in love with idealistic young law student Narayan (Abraham), a follower of Mahatma Gandhi's modern teachings. Gandhi not only agitated for India's independence from Britain but also sought to put an end to caste discrimination and improve the lot of Hindu widows. The relationship between Kalyani and Narayan becomes the focal point in 'Water's tragic conflict between tradition and modernism. 

Mehta directs with a sure hand, and much passion, so that 'Water' is a damning condemnation of patriarchy and religious fundamentalism, of all kinds. But this is not a heavy, moralising film. Engaging characters - from Vidula Javalgekar as Auntie, still craving the sweets served at her wedding feast on her deathbed, Lisa Ray's Kalyani, the best looking widow in town, and especially Chuyia, played by little Sarala, a Sri Lankan girl who had to memorise dialogue in a language she did not understand and who delivers it with confidence - enable the film to build slowly in power to the final bittersweet scene.

Beautifully shot by regular Mehta collaborator Giles Nuttgens, the vivid colours and intriguing customs of Indian culture are portrayed alongside some of the more damaging elements of the country's past. Or, as written in a postscript at the end of the film, still suffered by 33m widows in India. Mehta focuses an unflinching and unforgiving eye on this ill-treatment of women and fashions her fury into an eloquent testimony in favour of freedom and free thinking. A memorable film.

Caroline Hennessy