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Many widows and a funeral

Shoma A Chatterji, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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BaabulThere is new wind blowing while depicting widows in celluloid. A few filmmakers are putting them at centrestage exploring their inner self  and problems, says Shoma A. Chatterji
Unlike the young and silent Radha clad in starched white widow's weeds in Ramesh Sippy's Sholay, Indian widows in real life and on celluloid are steadily stepping out of their widowhood. Bengali wives no longer give up non-vegetarian food when they lose their husbands. The only thing they give up are – the mangal sutra, or the thaali, or the sindoor, the green bangles and other varying symbols of marriage in different parts of India. Indian cinema, regional, national and of the diaspora, is coming to terms with this reality. While 'period' films like Water pay tribute to a period when widows were relegated to a life of living death, Baabul shows the father-in-law taking on the responsibility of his widowed daughter-in-law's social and emotional resurrection through re- marriage. Hum Tum delicately explores the internalizing of widowhood by a young, urban and enlightened woman who believes she should continue to live with the memories of her dead husband. It takes her seven years and long phases of introspection to realize that she can and should fall in love again and that she has the right to a new life. 
DorInterestingly, just within this year, we have four films tackling widowhood in varied manifestations - Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor, Ravi Chopra's Baabul, Deepa Mehta's Water and Vikram Bhatt's Red -The Dark Side.  In Dor, the tragedy of widowhood is layered with the parallel story of emotional bonding between two women distanced in terms of their faith, education, social class, language, culture and geography. The in-laws' double standards and cruel treatment of the young widow (brilliantly portrayed by Ayesha Takia) is intense and moving. There is one lovely scene where, while walking back home, Takia listens to a Hindi film song playing somewhere. She peeps around to see if anyone is looking, then breaks into an impromptu dance. 
Baabul, directed by Ravi Chopra, brings back memories of an old film Ek Hi Raasta directed by B.R. Chopra. Starring Meena Kumari, Sunil Dutt and Ashok Kumar, the film opens with the happy family portrait of Sunil, Meena and Daisy Irani. Their world collapses when the husband dies in an accident Ashok Kumar is responsible for. This man tries to take over the responsibility of the bereaved family. But neighbours and relatives scream blue scandal and red murder. Ashok Kumar shuts them up by smearing Meena Kumari's hair with vermillion. Though in retrospect, the film appears been over- melodramatic, it played an important role in getting across the widow's right to a new life.
Water is an outsider's view of widowhood with patriarchal and feudal fangs laid bare at their best in the late 1930s when the progressive ideals of Gandhi were slowly making their presence felt. The film's essence lies in its point-of-view depiction of the little Chuiyan, the child-widow forced into the widow's ashram later sent to appease the lust of a debauch . There are, however,  factual anomalies in the film. Ram Mohan Roy's name comes up in connection with widow remarriage. It was Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who pioneered of the widow-remarriage movement. The Holi scene in the ashram where the widows splash colour on each other is jarring because Holi was unthinkable for widows in those days.
WaterThe death of the husband among upper caste Hindus is expressed through special ceremonies that marginalize his widow, now socially dead. The rituals incorporate features signifying symbolic rejection/deprivation of the widow's sexuality. The rituals are simple but humiliating and traumatic. The tonsuring of the head was a common practice. The beauty of the woman's hair, a point of attraction, needed to be taken away for good. Marriage rituals that gave the girl her identity as a married woman were ceremonially taken away when the girl became a widow. The three main colours linked to the Hindu married woman are turmeric, yellow and red. These colours are taboo for the widow for the rest of her life. As yellow and red are both primary colours, other colours are also denied her. Her persona must reflect white; especially in the clothes she wears. In Maharashtra at the turn of the last century, Brahmin widows had tonsured heads, wore maroon saris wrapped tightly around their bodies, sans blouse and jewellery, and did not appear in front of male members. The most moving celluloid representation of two such widows, one young and the other old, was seen in Vijaya Mehta's Rao Saheb, more than two decades ago.
Vikram Bhatt's Red is the only film after Rituparno Ghosh's Chokher Bali that dares to explore the world of suppressed sexual desire among young widows. Desire for all that is forbidden to widows is the essence of the essaying of the three widows in Chokher Bali . The social conditioning that trains widows to suppress desire and cut off simple enjoyments from relishing tea to eating paan or savouring chocolates, to falling in love to enjoying sex, to getting married again, are portrayed in the film. Binodini (Aishwarya Rai) is a woman every woman would envy – she is beautiful, she has guts, she is educated and she is charismatic. Yet she is also a woman who everyone would pities– she is a widow. Binodini defies her widowhood through her willful seduction of the vulnerable Mahendra. But her defiance is short-lived. Towards the end, in a gesture of tribute to the sweet bonding she shared with Ashalata (Raima Sen), now pregnant with Mahendra's child, she disappears forever. Red, through the sensuous persona of Celina Jaitley who plays the sexy widow, could have invested the widow in mainstream cinema with a different dimension. But Bhatt could not resist the thriller trap and the film fails as a widow-story and as a thriller too. The Hindu Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856. The Act has not changed society's attitude towards Hindu widows. Yet, one cannot deny that it opens a door in the Black Hole of widowhood they can use to step out of when and if they wish to. 
RedIf there was one figure that symbolised total human ignominy in the 19 th Century, it was that of a widow. She symbolized all that was inauspicious; her state was the most unfortunate, the most miserable. Despite social reforms targeted mainly at widows in the last century, the picture in terms of her economic and social status in the rural and backward belts has remained more or less the same. If a widow has been able to survive the trauma and has triumphed over it, she has done it through her guts, her grit, and her determination to stick through it all and come out not only triumphant but happy. 


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