Ladies in White

I am an NRI, translated into: no-real Indian. I follow Indian cinema in my quest to find only one million original films before humanity as we know it disappears. I will use the term Indian cinema sparingly because I only have access to Hindi films, not Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Gujarati and other languages.

South Africa widows
Films such as Sholay, Mohabbatein, Choker Bhali and Maidan-e-Jung remind me of growing up in Durban, where we would spot a widow by her black weeds. As time went on, women stopped wearing full black and had a black collar on top of the blouse or dress for the bereavement period. This was later abandoned for just a piece of cloth pinned on the jacket or sleeve to indicate a death in the family.

Mourning usually takes a year. A cleansing ceremony is held after that and the widow starts wearing colourful clothes again and can also get married. It is now very rare to see a woman who has lost a husband dressed in black from head to toe, like the one I saw at the Carlton Centre, in central Johannesburg recently.

Mourning colour
As a student of Indian cinema, I think it will be correct to say that widows in India wear white, but I don’t know for how long. Sholay, Ramesh Sippy’s film is popular for many reasons. My favourite character is Radha the widow, played by Jaya Badhuri.

She is attracted to Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) one of the thieves hired by her father-in-law Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) to find the man who murdered his family including her husband. She escaped because she was at the temple, with one of the servants. Radha and Jai’s feelings are conveyed in a

Father-in-law wants widow to re-marry
Thakur, her father in law goes to her father and convinces him to let her marry Jai. He said something to the effect that she will have somebody to protect her when they die. Radha’s father agrees but Jai dies before they can marry. There is a painful scene where is standing at an open window watching the cremation ceremony. She slowly closes the window. I suppose she accepted her destiny that she will always be a widow.

Baabul, directed by Ravi Chopra demonstrates very well a girl’s standing in life. She is first her father’s daughter, who in turn hands her over to her father-in-law. Amitabh Bachchan plays Balraj Kapoor in the film. His wife is Shobna (Hema Malini) and they have one son

Like all Hindi movies, he returns home to join his father’s empire. He meets a painter Millie (Rani Mukherjee) and they fall in love. Balraj Kapoor informs his elder brother Balram (Om Puri) about the wedding. He is first angry about the short notice but goes to the wedding. Balraj and his wife are surprised that Balram and his family came without Pushpa, the widow who was married to Balram’s son.

Widows bad luck
“What will a widow do at a wedding? It’s a bad omen,” says Balram Om Puri’s character. Balraj defies his elder brother and brings Pushpa to wedding. Balram warns Balraj about consequences. Millie and Avinash live happily and later have a son Ansh.

Balram reminds Balraj about the bad omen brought by Pushpa’s presence at the wedding when Avinash is killed on his way home from a business meeting in London. Balram is more incensed when his younger brother orchestrates a plot to get Millie to marry her childhood friend Rajat (John Abraham).

Balram lashes out at his younger brother supported by his sons, “It is a big sin even to think of a widow’s second marriage. It is against nature, against religion.” Balram dismisses the priest and says the wedding will not take place. Balraj tells him to stay put.

He argues that Millie is his daughter therefore he wants her to live, although her husband, his son is dead. Balraj talks about the Sati, the old practice where women were burnt with their dead husbands. He says confining a widow behind mourning clothes for the rest of her life is tantamount to that. Balraj says he doesn’t agree that tradition should live but a person should die, Millie in this case.

It is interesting that both Balram and Balraj used culture and tradition to justify their stands. Balram, Om Puri’s character maintained that tradition made widows like Pushpa bad omens. Balraj was firm in saying that Millie is not his daughter-in-law, but daughter and he will do all he can to make her happy.

Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness The Novel.
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