Deepa Mehta began her ''elemental trilogy" with 1996's ''Fire," followed by ''Earth" in 1998. The final film, ''Water," is just now opening here -- not because Mehta ever hesitated in her quest to portray the oppression of women in India, but because that quest so enraged Hindu fundamentalists that they shut down the production.
The Toronto-based writer and director persevered, ultimately filming in Sri Lanka. The resulting story of outcast widows, though burdened by outbursts of melodrama in both its script and its score, nevertheless makes exactly the kind of powerful, grief- and rage-inducing statement that Mehta's attackers must fear. If her plot sometimes beggars belief, so too do the religious laws that still keep millions of India's widows trapped in a kind of living death.
After a few lush, luxuriantly unhurried shots of waterlilies, riverboats, and ox carts to ground us in 1938 India, Mehta introduces her first widow, Chuyia. When her husband dies, Chuyia is not yet 8. Nevertheless, her wedding bracelets are struck from her wrists, her head is shaved, and her father leaves her to her fate: life in a house of widows, where she will join the other women to beg for coins, avoid such extravagances as fried food, and try to keep even their shadows from falling on a bride.
Chuyia's disbelieving fury at this exile from normal life fuels her rebellion, which is futile, and her resilience, which isn't. The remarkable young Sarala, a Sri Lankan villager who had never acted and didn't even speak Hindi when Mehta cast her (she learned her lines phonetically), is, in that overused word, luminous. Her inner strength truly does shine through her every gesture, and she pulls the picture toward her whenever she appears.
Unfortunately, Mehta doesn't commit to making Chuyia's story the center of her film. Instead, we get the gorgeous Lisa Ray and the even more gorgeous John Abraham in a strained, soapy subplot of instant, innocent, and inevitably doomed love. Their scenes together are stunning -- a nighttime tryst lit only by tiny oil lamps, a daytime embrace in dappled shade -- but their romance strays over the line into romantic cliché.
A third widow, played with understated power by Seema Biswas, follows a more believable path from submission to the first stirrings of liberation. Her story also interweaves more gracefully with Chuyia's; focusing more closely on their relationship, at the expense of the Romeo-and-Juliet angle, might have given the film the single strong center it needs. But the Mahatma-ex-machina ending would still need work.
Despite these excesses -- sadly underlined by a score that too often overwhelms the rich colors and elegant composition of Giles Nuttgen's cinematography with soggy strings -- ''Water" succeeds in its central goal: to turn a forgotten class of women into real, memorable human beings who deserve a different life. Chuyia, especially, is a widow you just can't forget.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.