Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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© Copyright 2004



Other Movies


Water – The agony of Varanasi widows

Indian-born Canadian citizen Deepa Mehta’s latest film, “Water” is stoking fire. Up for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Picture slot on February 25, the movie may not be screened in India, and sadly so. For, though it is a Canadian entry, it has an Indian star cast, and tells an Indian story of 1930s widows driven to a ghetto existence in the country’s holiest of cities, Varanasi. Some Congressmen, whose party heads a coalition Government in New Delhi, allege that the movie shows a eunuch making derogatory remarks against Mahatma Gandhi. Varanasi’s citizens have another reason to force a ban: they would not want the world to see the agony of these widows.

But this agony has been written about, filmed and documented for decades. Poet Rabindranath Tagore fictionalised it, Gandhi spoke about it and 19th century social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy and Swami Vivekananda advocated widow remarriage. Mehta was merely retelling the tale in “Water” choosing the 1930s as her period. The film’s protagonist is a child widow of eight years, who brings a whiff of fresh air to the “widow-house” in Varanasi that she and rest have been pushed into and left to die. Begging to survive, some of them take to prostitution. Widow-houses still exist in Varanasi, and the younger and the prettier of the women find themselves as sex-slaves. These are not exactly hidden from the world.

Mehta ran into trouble in Varanasi even when she began shooting “Water” in 2000. When radical Hindu political organisations burnt her effigy and darted death threats at her, she, her crew and actresses who had tonsured to play their parts fled the city. It took Mehta five years to begin afresh, and this time she chose Sri Lanka, a new set of actors and a Canadian producer.

Mehta, who was born in New Delhi, courted controversy even with her earlier movie, “Fire”. Shiv Sena, an extremist Hindu political outfit, set fire to theatres showing this film, because its subject was lesbian relationship between two Delhi women. The Sena termed this “un-Indian” and warned that such cinema would corrupt India’s youth.

The protests against “Fire” and “Water” are part of an intolerance wave sweeping India, where hardcore Hindu fundamentalists play keepers of morality. They police thought, tell you what to wear and, given half a chance, will seal Varanasi’s widow-houses. Even if it is only to prove Mehta wrong.

(Webposted February 15 2007)