Plumbing the Depths of Indian Widowhood

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

It was 11 years ago, but the image of a widow's wretchedness etched itself into the soul of Deepa Mehta , the Indian-born filmmaker who has made a career of deconstructing India's darkest taboos in sparse cinematic works of art.

In the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, where the languorous Ganges River draws believers who perform rituals along its banks, Mehta saw an elderly woman sheathed in white cloth, bent in despair and crawling about looking for her spectacles on the stone steps leading to the water. Defeated, she struggled to sit on her haunches, her back to the sun, sobbing meekly, Mehta recalled in an interview last week.

According to ancient religious texts, women who lose their husbands -- even child brides -- are banished to a life of chastity and deprivation. Like a lotus flower, widows must survive pure and untouched by the dirty water in which they live, according to one of the holy books, the Bhagavad-Gita.

The old woman could not find her way back to the ashram, one of 16 widow houses in the sacred city, until the filmmaker's crew escorted her there. From her first glimpse into this shabby, cloistered existence, Mehta said, "I always knew I wanted to write about the widows of India."

Her film, "Water," was screened recently at Filmfest DC ahead of its commercial distribution. In the opening scene, a willful, precocious 8-year-old girl is ferried across the Ganges in a small boat to an ashram. She is sucking at a piece of sugar cane, both innocent and sensual, oblivious to her husband's death and the fate that awaits her. "It is about a war between tradition and the desire for an independent voice," Mehta said.

"Water" is the third in a trilogy of films, following "Fire" and "Earth."

"Fire" told the story of a young woman going through a divorce who explores lesbianism. "Earth" was about religious polarization at the time of India's partition in 1947, with Hindus and Muslims sending trainloads of massacred civilians to one another while the neutral Parsis, who are Zoroastrian, were caught in the middle.

"I wrote about the politics of sexuality in 'Fire,' " Mehta said. " 'Earth' was about the politics of sectarian wars, and 'Water' is about the politics of religion as it affects women."

"Water" is set in 1938, a time when Mohandas K. Gandhi was preaching social reforms and child marriage was prevalent. Though a devout Hindu, he championed the cause of widows. Since the 19th century, widows have been allowed to remarry, and many who have the financial means and are not as bound by caste and belief stay with their families.

But most live a life of deprivation. They go to die in designated widow houses, inside crumbling walls and on bare earth without bedding or furnishings, amid brass pots and dim corners. Their bangles broken and removed, their hair shaved off, they lead lonely, ascetic lives, disconnected from their families and ostracized. They pray by the river's still waters, eating rice gruel and spice paste once a day.

"Here you are, trying to deal with your pain, looking for some dignity in the life left for you as a widow, and you are shunned," Mehta said.

Her title comes from the river. "Water is flowing. It is about life and we are part of it," she said. "It is about purity and cleansing, yet it can be stagnant."

In one of the most poignant scenes in the movie, an aging Gandhi is preaching to followers at a train station. The revered figure tells them that religion teaches that God is truth but that his life and experience have taught him that truth is God.

"It is a true Hindu question, but it applies to any religion," Mehta said. "When it is not questioned, it stagnates. What needs to be done to keep the religion alive? These words 'truth is God' are as powerful for Hindus as they are for Muslims or Catholics." She added, "Rejecting the other, everything and everyone that is not familiar, is when tradition lets insecurity be perpetuated."

She spent four months interviewing widows in ashrams. Many told her they preferred the existence there among other sisters to life with their families. One widow told her that she was not allowed to be part of her son's wedding because "it is considered inauspicious."

"My approach is not that of a victim," Mehta said. "I don't come from that place and it is not just about Indian women. It is not a message, it is a response. It is the most loving film I have done. It came from a place of real calmness, of caring about the journey of the characters."

She said the female characters she chose were "a bit of my aunt, my grandmother, me in another." But the family system in India can be avaricious. "Instead of caring for a widow, they may keep what money they may have to spend on her," Mehta said.

So a character in the film describes the fate of widows in economic terms: "One less mouth to feed, one free mattress, one spare corner in the house, four saris." And economics provides the irony in the imposition of chastity when the most beautiful widow is sold across the river to a wealthy businessman to help provide some income for the family matriarch.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company