India has one of the biggest film industries in the world. Most have heard all about the large glitzy, and ultimately rather immature musicals that the country pumps out on a regular business. In many ways most of the edgier more independently minded movies about Indian society seem to be made by Indian immigrants in other countries like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta. Mehta's film Water was greeted with great praise by western critics and an academy award nomination for best foreign film, but it was highly controversial in India where it's production was greeted with violence that forced it to move its production to Siri Lanka.
The film is an attack on the Hindu practice in which young women who are widowed at a young age are forced to live in Ashrams. There they live a secluded life not unlike that of a nun's. The film is set in 1938 and begins by focusing on a girl named Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam) whose arranged husband (who she never met) dies when she is seven years old. She is then sent to this ashram to live out the rest of her life. The ashram is run by the militantly traditionalist old woman named Madhumati (Manorama). In order to keep the ashram financially secure she forces a young beautiful widow named Kalyani (Lisa Ray) into prostitution. A young man, inspired by the teachings of Gandhi, named Narayan (John Abraham) runs into Kalyani and tells her about the possibility of leaving the ashram.
The film is set against the rise of Mahatma Gandhi, who was no fan of the way widows are treated. Gandhi's beliefs are not universally praised by the traditionalists around him, many Indians saw his attacks on ashrams and the caste system as "foolish" and "crazy." This I think is what the film's ultimate political message derives from; that progressive change is always attacked in its time by those without the vision to see how it will improve things. Today, the notion of ashram seems crazy, but at the time it was perfectly natural. Seeing such attitudes and such reactions to changes that seem like common sense allows the viewer to gain perspective about changing cultural norms that exist today. One could imagine people seventy years from now being just as baffled by the reaction certain people have to the thought of gay marriage.
The film's script is interesting, as it begins with a clear focus on the young Chuyia. One assumes it will stay focused on her but it doesn't. It seems that she is mainly used because it is an interesting perspective to use in introducing the ashram to the viewer. As the film progresses it becomes more of an ensemble piece and at times seems to focus very specifically on Kalyani and Narayan.
The Narayan character is in many ways the film's weak link. A romance that buds between him and Kalyani seems a bit hokey, they seem to fall in "love" after meeting maybe twice and have very few real interactions. What's shown on screen seems like little more than puppy love and Narayan's naivety occasionally gets on my nerves. Furthermore whenever he's on screen he tends to telegraph the film's message with very direct and inelegant lines. It doesn't help that John Abraham is probably gives the weakest performance in the film.
The film is very well produced, there's great cinematography to be seen in it and the film has a very effectively calm tone throughout. This combined with a well constructed political message makes the film as a whole rise above some questionable elements.