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The Widows by the Holy River

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April 2006
The Widows by the Holy River

(Rated R, 114 minutes, Hindi with English subtitles)

��� Perhaps the most striking similarity between Water, the final film in Deepa Mehta's ‘elements' trilogy, and her earlier works – Fire and Earth – is the presence of strong-willed female characters in leading roles. These are characters whose lives are often permanently altered by their bold actions amidst a narrow and oppressive environment. That's the thematic element, one might say, linking the three – otherwise very different – films. At the start of Water, when Chuyia, the spunky child widow with a mind of her own, is brought to Rawalpur, where she is expected to live out the rest of her life in the company of other Hindu widows, the viewer quickly realizes that her rebellious point of view will shape much of the story. In Mehta's Earth, the middle and arguably her best film, there is another precocious 8-year-old girl (Lenny) as a central figure, who, despite being crippled by polio, learns to deal with the unhappy circumstances that overwhelm her family and her ayah during the partition of the subcontinent. And the two middle-class women in Fire, feeling trapped by marriage, defy convention in finding comfort in each other.

��� Too young to even know that she'd been married to an old man, Chuyia (played by Sarala) is at first puzzled to be in this decrepit ashram by the holy river. This is during the waning years of the British Raj, when the winds of socio-political change are sweeping through the land. Determined to go "home" as soon as possible, she runs afoul of Madhumati (Manorama), a surly widow who acts as the unofficial boss and tries, without much success, to control Chuyia. But the innocent girl's natural ebullience comes as a breath of fresh air to the other residents and she has no trouble making friends. Although the caring Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) becomes an ally and protector of sorts, it's with Kalyani (Lisa Ray) – who with her serene beauty and long hair stands out in the ashram – that Chuyia bonds the most. Being a reluctant prostitute, Kalyani has to make nocturnal trips to the mansions across the river. Her income is the reason for her special status, since it enables the widows to be self-sufficient, but as one finds out later on, Kalyani pays a steep price.

��� While chasing a pet dog on the streets of Rawalpur, Chuyia facilitates a chance encounter between Kalyani and a dashing Brahmin lawyer, Narayan (John Alexander), sparking an instant mutual attraction. Undeterred by the odds, a smitten Narayan begins courting her. An idealistic young man, inspired by the leadership and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi – whose character makes a cameo appearance at the end – Narayan is determined to marry Kalyani, despite the objections of his family and the taboo against widow remarriage in orthodox Hindu society. Kalyani's nightly work, which she keeps a secret from her wooer, presents another challenge to these star-crossed lovers. Narayan's close friend and confidant, also belonging to the city's elite, is an unapologetic Anglophile who, with his gentle mocking of Narayan's infatuation and nationalist leanings, acts as a perfect foil.

��� There is no melodrama in the movie, though, and without feeling grim or didactic, the tightly structured story unfolds organically. It's true that some viewers may find the somewhat Bollywood-style romance between the two glamorous stars a little jarring, especially because it contrasts so sharply with the unsparing realism of the film. The hard, impoverished life of these ostracized widows is captured in such painstaking detail that many of them don't even come across as actors. In her interview with Khabar, Mehta mentioned that her cast consisted of actors and ordinary citizens, including one widow. To their considerable credit, Lisa Ray and John Alexander give restrained, thoughtful performances as young people who have little control over their destinies during a turbulent era. And in spite of the plot's tragic denouement, the films ends on surprisingly upbeat and satisfying note.

��� With her expressive eyes and gestures, newcomer Sarala does a good job of conveying Chuyia's varying emotions and touching naivet�. At a prayer meeting, when she asks where the ashram for widowers is, the assembled widows are scandalized by her audacity. Seema Biswas (of Bandit Queen fame), given a crucial role in the plot, sensitively portrays her internal conflict over faith and tradition in a fast-changing society. Kulbhushan Kharbanda is the kindly priest who becomes her guide in spiritual matters.

��� A city dedicated to Lord Shiva, Rawalpur by the holy river is obviously a stand-in for Varanasi, where Mehta couldn't shoot because of the trouble she'd experienced there in 2000, forcing her to abandon the earlier project. The filming actually took place in Sri Lanka. Giles Nuttgens, the cinematographer, has done a commendable job of capturing the mood, colors and rhythm of the place. Indeed, the city often resembles Varanasi and some scenes are reminiscent of Aparajito (from Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy), which has that holy city as the setting and a young boy as its protagonist. This acknowledgement of the master is no surprise, given that Mehta has named Ray as a formative influence.

��� For Deepa Mehta, it's been a long and sometimes painful journey since that day, many years ago, when the sight of a wrinkled old widow in Varanasi became the inspiration for her movie. "Now that the film is complete, I can look back on the journey it has taken to make it," she says in her statement. "The anguish, the death threats, the politics, the ugly face of religious fundamentalism – we experienced them all. Has it been worth it, I often wonder? Then that image of a widow from ten years ago surfaces in my mind, as she sits on the steps of the Ganges, her toothless mouth making gasping sounds of despair. I found out later that she had lost her only pair of spectacles. Without them, she was half blind."

��� This new film becomes, as it were, an eye-correcting lens through which one is able to view, with greater understanding and compassion, the cloistered world of these Hindu widows by the holy river.

By Murali Kamma


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