(WOMENSENEWS)--Two days into shooting "Water" in February 2000--a movie about the plight of Hindu widows in pre-independence India that opened in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco two weeks ago--the set was overrun by protestors who declared the movie "anti-Hindu."
Over the following days, director-writer Deepa Mehta and her cast received death threats, Mehta's effigy was burned, and Hindu fundamentalists marched the streets of Varanasi in north India until the film was forced to shut down under accusations of a foreign conspiracy to tarnish the image of Hinduism and widowhood in Indian culture.
Three years later in California, an Indian American director, Dharan Mandrayar, heard about the continuing maltreatment of widows in present-day India. He decided to make a movie--"White Rainbow," which opened in San Jose on April 7--on the topic and set it in the Hindu holy city of Vrindavan in north India, often dubbed the City of Widows because of the large number of widows who live there.
But when Mandrayar shared his plans with other Indians he knew in the States, he was given an icy reception. "All I got was, 'Why are you doing this?' 'Why are you saying this about our country?'" Mandrayar told Women's eNews. "It was shocking."
These two widow-themed films are showing the world a subset of Indian culture that is often not talked about, and sometimes willfully ignored.
Mohini Giri, a leading Indian activist for widow's rights, says many Indians shrug off widow abuse. "It's been like this for centuries as the accepted way of life," she says. "The husband is called a god and the minute a woman loses her god, she becomes a zero."
A Life Worse Than Death
In 2001, according to India's national census, there were more than 34 million widows in the country of more than 1 billion. Giri estimates that the number has risen recently as a result of increased deaths from natural disasters as the Asian tsunami as well as India's military conflict with Pakistan in Kashmir.
When a Hindu woman becomes a widow, she traditionally only wears white. In the past, her hair would be completely shorn and she could not wear jewelry or cosmetics. Many modern Hindu families do not adhere to these older customs, but still widows are often considered inauspicious and are not invited to weddings and other celebrations. Many widows embark on pilgrimages to places like Vrindavan and Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges and often decide to stay there, living in ashrams and begging for alms daily.
In "White Rainbow," Mandrayar drew his four central characters--only one of whom is elderly--from real-life widows' stories. Each character represents a different kind of widow abuse that is still often experienced: social ostracism, abandonment by children, rape by in-laws, and financial and sexual exploitation by priests.
Over the last few years, advocacy efforts have reached some Indian widows. Giri, herself a widow, founded the New Delhi-based Guild of Service in 1972, a volunteer organization that helps widows claim their pensions, organizes classes to teach trades such as spinning and weaving so that widows can support themselves and provides free literacy programs and medical treatment.
In 1998, the guild set up Amar Bari, an ashram for 100 widows in Vrindavan as an alternative to the overcrowded, dilapidated buildings that most widows live in. In 2002, the government of India opened a series of similar shelters for widows and other destitute women around the country as part of its Swadhar initiative. But Giri says whatever progress has been achieved is "only a drop in the ocean."
Giri hopes that the two films, "Water" and "White Rainbow," will draw more attention to widows' rights and instigate even more progress when they are released around the world this spring and summer.
Mehta was able to complete "Water" in Sri Lanka under a false title, a complete media blackout and with a new cast. It is the story of an 8-year-old girl, Chuyia, married as a child bride to an older man who promptly dies, leaving her widowed. Sent to live in an ashram, her energetic questioning causes the adult widows she encounters to reassess the discrimination they had always assumed was their fate.
Subtitled in English, "Water" was the opening night feature at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and in late April it premiered in New York. It will be released nationwide in India in July but has already been screened at film festivals there.
Mehta says "Water"--the final installment of her trilogy about the elements that follows "Fire" and "Earth"--was "received incredibly well" by the local Indian audience. She credits the change in government in the 2004 national elections from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to a secular coalition led by the Congress Party for the greater openness to questions on the "politics of religion and its effect on women."
"White Rainbow," also subtitled, has not been as lucky. The film should have been released in India in the summer of 2005 but its Indian distributor stalled repeatedly and then finally released it in Mumbai the same week the monsoon rains hit the city. "White Rainbow" ran amidst floods and a cholera outbreak, but after a week, the distributor pulled the film claiming weak audience response.
The reaction from the Indian press was also rather hostile. Mandrayar recalls journalists asking him questions like "You don't have songs or fight scenes in the film. Who's going to watch it?"
"They wanted dancing in the rain with widows getting their saris wet," he says.
Mandrayar is now releasing the film in the United States first and hopes to gain international traction for it before trying again in India. It was released in three California cities on May 12 and will open in others in the coming months.
Giri believes that this outside-in approach is the only way to make any significant social change on this issue in India.
"We're hoping that when the outside world hears about what is happening here," she says, "then the brains in India will get rattled."
Mehta is more upbeat. "There has been incredible work done in the last few years," she told Women's eNews and included Giri's work in the compliment. "What you don't see in ashrams anymore are child widows because child marriage has been abolished. And also, the younger widows that come in now, in their early 20s and 30s, don't shave off their hair if they don't want to. It's up to them; suddenly, they have a choice." She also stressed the importance of maintaining perspective on the problem of widow abuse.
"This is something that has been going on for 2,000 years . . . To get rid of that is going to take time. But it's started, and I'm hopeful."
Anju Mary Paul is a freelance cultural reporter based in New York City. She holds an M.A. in journalism from New York University.
Guild of Service:
Widow's Rights International: