When her husband dies in 1938 India, feisty 8-year-old Hindu bride Chuyia (Sarala) is sent to live at an ashram managed by a cruel headmistress, Madhumati (Manorama), who follows the age-old custom of forcing widows to live an ascetic, sheltered life. But almost immediately, the child is befriended by two older women, gorgeous Kaylani (Ray) and kindly Shakuntula (Biswas). The bond forged among these three women creates a ray of brightness in an otherwise bleak world of lonely deprivation.
The third chapter in Mehta's Elemental Trilogy ("Fire," "Earth"), this extraordinary film has a bleak premise — a child widow forced into a religiously strict lifestyle — yet it's anything but downbeat. Instead, the director has fashioned a deeply felt, stirring meditation on innocence and privation, morality and romance, within the conservative Hindu milieu. Beneath it all, of course, is a pointed critique of a hallowed but obviously inhumane tradition in India. Among the sterling cast of players, Bollywood actor John Abraham offers excellent support as Kaylani's would-be suitor, Narayan.