Canadian writer-director Deepa Mehta’s previous films–including the appalling “Bollywood/Hollywood”–hardly prepare one for “Water,” a moving account of a child widow from an arranged marriage sent to a home for women whose husbands have also died, where she is expected to live out her days. Eight-year old Chuyla (Sarala) doesn’t even recall her wedding to a much older man, but after his sudden death, according to strict Hindu belief, she must be segregated from society, along with other widows, because marriage creates a union of man and woman which is not broken by the husband’s demise.

The picture is set in 1938, amidst the movement led by Gandhi to liberalize policy in this and other areas, and the period setting gives it the flavor of a Dickens story in eastern dress (even though the problem it focuses on remains very real today). The house in which Chuyla is placed is operated by an obese, imperious woman named Madhumati (Manorama), who cares more for her dog than the other women in the establishment and sometimes arranges through her seedy associate Gulabi (Raghuvir Tadav) for residents to be rented out to rich men for the night. One of the widows thus treated is the beautiful Kalyani (Lisa Ray), with whom Chuyla develops a bond. An accidental encounter with Narayan (John Abraham), a young man drawn to Gandhi’s progressive ideas, leads to a forbidden romance between him and Kalyani in which Chuyla sometimes plays the role of go-between, and which threatens Madhumati’s control. Centrally involved in the resultant turmoil is another house resident, the rigidly controlled Skakuntala (Seema Biswas), who’s initially loyal to Madhumati but increasingly comes to question the traditions in which she herself is trapped. It is, in fact, her growing concern over the system she’s long accepted and the impulse to save Chuyla from it that represents the emotional core of Mehta’s last act.

Obviously “Water”–the title referring to the nearby river that plays so great a role in the unfolding of the story–is a film with a social point to make, and it does so unequivocally both through the depiction of the young girl’s predicament and in its portrayal of the class and cultural divisions that impact upon the characters. What’s important, though, is that it works not only didactically but emotionally. The Kalyani-Narayan thread of the plot goes rather far in the direction of magical romance–there’s a near-Bollywood quality to some of it–but the rest of the film, while hardly an exercise in pure realism, makes its points with considerable impact. The acting, especially from Sarala and Biswas, is very affecting, and there’s also a remarkable supporting turn by Vidula Javalgekar as Auntie, an ancient widow with a childish love of sweets (it may represent a shameless bid for audience sympathy, but it succeeds).

“Water,” filmed in Sri Lanka, is visually striking, with a glow from Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography that brings a certain nostalgic feel to a story that’s in many respects quite bleak, further enhanced by Mychael Danna’s rich score. But what really distinguishes it is the kernel of emotional honesty at its center. It might be described as a feminist document; in fact, though, it’s simply a deeply human one that happens to center on women. And the fact that it makes a political-religious point about a sad reality that still persists in Indian society is but an added benefit to a lovely and compelling film.