Films on Widow Abuse Survive Their Own Ordeals

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Films coming out in the U.S. on the problem of widow abuse in India have generated their own sagas. The director of "Water" had her effigy burned in 2000 while "White Rainbow" opened in India last year amid floods and a cholera outbreak.

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Instigating Progress

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.

A scene from

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.

Hostile Reaction

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.

For more information:

Guild of Service:

Widow's Rights International:

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