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.
I don’t know about other cultures but in mine, culture and tradition go such a long way back, sometimes it is not clear why certain norms were created. Neel Kamal, directed by Ram Maheshwary is about re-incarnation but the film has a part where the character Girhar says, “They used to burn widows on the pyres of their dead husbands.”
Not anymore. They are spared but wear white. Binodini, a young attractive widow (Aishwarya Rai) challenges some cultural norms in Choker Bali, directed by Rituparno Ghosh. She questions why she should not wear jewellery and eat fish when her husband died a year after their marriage.
She also doesn’t accept that everything is God’s will because she doesn’t understand why God should make her a widow at such a young age. Most of all she laments the fact that society doesn’t realise that she is flesh and blood.
Binodini also turns the tables on two men who refused to marry her. She uses her beauty and her knowledge of the English language to destroy them. She doesn’t believe that her husband’s death was her fault that she should be paying for. She regards herself as attractive and flaunts parts of her body she regards appealing to men.
In Maidan-e-Jung, Laxmi, a widow is saved by Shankar (Dharmendra) from the clutches of Gumaan Singh, her cruel brother-in-law who wanted to rape her. Karan, the younger brother played by Akshay Kumar also doesn’t agree with the whole belief system towards widows. He even asks his aunt why Laxmi cannot remarry.
“Aunt, is it a sin to be a widow?” he asks. “If a man can re-marry, then why can’t a woman?” Karan seems to forget that he is talking about his father, the powerful and cruel Daata Guru (Amrish Puri), who regards women as property and periodically slaps Laxmi. Daata Guru says widows belong to the family and cannot be given to anyone else.
In Deepa Mehta’s Water, an eight year-old girl Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawawasam) is a widow because the old man she was supposed to marry dies. Her mother sends her to an ashram run by Madhumati (Manorama).
Kalyani, a beautiful young widow (Lisa Ray) takes Chuyia under her wing. Madhumati forces Kalyani into prostitution and sends her across the river every night to sleep with clients. Madhumati also sends the eight year-old girl to clients where she is raped.
Karan, Jimmy Shergill’s character is in love with Kiran (Seti Jhangiani) a young widow in the film Mohabbatein. Kiran is not in white because her father-in-law (Amrish Puri) refuses to accept that his son, her husband was killed in action in a war.
The few films I have screened about widows show society’s duplicity when it comes to women. Women are colour-coded, to show their state in relation to men. This was thoroughly discussed in Shreemaan Asshique, directed by Deepak Anand, featuring Urmila Matondkar and Rishi Kapoor.
In the film, Professor Vishwamitra (Anupam Kher) has a fall-out with his girlfriend Maneka (Bindu Desai), also a professor. It was so bitter that he started the All India Bachelors’ Association where the slogan is‘all women are hell.’
Maneka’s anti-men organisation brings up issues such as, Kava Chauth where women fast to pray for their husbands' long life. Her disciples mention colours that tell the world about women. She is in white when she is a widow. There is a red dot on her forehead and mangal sutra to show that she is married.
The assigned colours however, do not stop men from regarding them as something they can use under the cover of darkness. Indeed, a scene in the film Choker Bali confirms that many pregnant widows visit a local clinic for abortion.
Mumbai producers have done many other films where widows are abused. The usual story line is that powerful men in the community fund homes for widows, with the intention of using them at night.
Nonqaba waka Msimang is the author of Sweetness the Novel.