Movies like Water pose an interesting challenge for the Christian viewer. Set in the 1930s, the film is a strong critique of the treatment of widows within traditional Hinduism, and Christians who believe in the God-given dignity of all human beings would agree that Indian society needed reformation on this point (and perhaps, in some quarters, it still does). Indeed, as far back as the 18th century, missionaries like William Carey played a significant part in putting a stop to practises like suttee, whereby widows were burned to death on their husbands' funeral pyres. But in this day and age, religions are not supposed to impose their beliefs on other cultures, so this film's social critique is rooted in basically secular principles—principles which, broadly applied, could undermine religious belief in general.
Fortunately, writer-director Deepa Mehta keeps us close enough to the experiences of the widows themselves that we can focus on seeing the injustice for what it is, without necessarily subscribing to her own belief system. The film centers on an eight-year-old girl named Chuyia (played by the one-named Sarala), who is first seen riding in a cart with her family and a sick man who, we later learn, is her husband—presumably through an arranged marriage that had not yet been consummated. Soon afterwards, Chuyia's father tells her that her husband is dead. "My child, do you remember getting married?" asks the father. "No," says Chuyia. But it makes no difference—a widow is a widow, and Chuyia is sent to an ashram, or "widow house," where she will spend the rest of her life in poverty.
There, Chuyia finds a range of women of various ages. She quickly runs afoul of Madhumati (Manorama), the older, overweight woman who runs the place, and whose domineering attitude prompts Chuyia to dismiss her as "Fatty." But she also makes a few friends, from the sensitive Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), who grapples most explicitly with the religious demands placed on her and her fellow widows, to the elderly, senile Patiraji, or "Auntie" (Vidula Javalgekar), who often talks of how she was married at the age of seven, chiefly because she remembers being treated to an abundance of her favorite sweets.
Ironically, the enforced chastity puts these cloistered widows into situations where some of them must prostitute themselves in order to survive. One of Chuyia's closest friends, Kalyani (Lisa Ray), is sometimes sent across the Ganges River to the Brahmin, or higher-caste, men who live there and pay for her services; because of this, she is allowed to keep her hair, but she must live apart from the other widows. These trips are arranged by a transvestite eunuch named Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), who regularly comes by Madhumati's window to bring her news of the world outside, including strange reports about a man named Gandhi who says untouchables are children of God, and similar things.
The story takes a romantic turn when Kalyani crosses paths with Narayana (John Abraham), a handsome Brahmin legal student who has joined Gandhi's movement and lives with his parents across the river. Narayana insists that he and Kalyani can have a life together, because "all the old traditions are dying out." But she is not so sure; and his parents, as modernized as their lifestyle may be, don't exactly see things the way he does.