Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Deepa Mehta
Starring: Sarala, Lisa Ray, Seema Biswas, John Abraham
(PG-13, 117 min.)
"There is no god higher than truth." Mahatma Gandhi
This exquisite tale focuses on the cloistered lives of widows in 1938 India, its delicate brush strokes defying the garish oils of present day Bollywood.
Like the equally moving To Live, Water also ruffled a few feathers among the establishment. Seven years in the making, the project’s bold director/writer Deep Mehta has endured death threats and ultimately had to move production to Sri Lanka, the homeland of the animated eight-year-old star, Sarala.
Perhaps the real offender is the footnote at film’s end, which states that far from being over, the cruel practices depicted are officially denied, yet ongoing.
Just what are those cruel practices? Well, according to 2000-year-old Hindi scriptures, a widow had three choices. She could throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, marry his younger brother, or retire to an ashram, a place of disciplined spiritual living, inhabited only by widows. The widows, heads shaved and clad in white muslin, beg for a living, and stay clear of others who regard them as only slightly above the pariahs or untouchables.
Their white garbs and shaved heads are almost monastic in nature, and indeed, the life of a widow is not like Shakespeare’s “merry” one, but more like Ophelia’s “Get thee to a nunnery” admonition. Not really an outgrowth of the cruel practices of the caste system, since these widows, I believe, are all Braham widows - wives of those of the highest caste. But unlike Gloria Steinem’s glib dismissal, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” the Indian widows are truly severed from society when they are without a husband. All must remain cloistered and chaste throughout the rest of their lives.
Not too terrible for an octogenarian deprived of a beloved spouse, but what if instead of 80, she is 8! That’s right, a widow at 8 years old, which is what Chuyia, the Sri Lankan star, is.
This, of course, being one of the dividends of arranged marriages, especially so those between ailing old men and literal child brides.
The spirited Chuyia rebels at this dead end existence, shocking all by asking if there is an equivalent home for “male widows.”
And perhaps we will need to qualify the “chaste” life the widows lead, that is except for one, the lovely Kalyani (Lisa Ray). She alone is allowed to wear her hair long and keep a taboo puppy in her private room at the top of the stairs. But there is a price paid for these benefits, one that entails assignations procured by the friendly eunuch, Gulabi, who ferries her to the waiting arms of rich Brahman clients, a steady source of income for the widows “sanctuary.” That the married Brahman clients do not discriminate between adult widow/prostitutes and prepubescent ones, claiming that being intimate with a Brahman is a gift to any woman, is the ultimate revulsion, one filed with tragic irony as well. By contrast, the constricted life of a Geisha (Memoirs of) is a piece of rice cake.
The lovely Kalyani has caught the eye of young Brahman and Gandi idealist, Narayana (John Abraham), and he wants to break from tradition and marry her. After all, the young scholar reasons, it is now actually legal for widows to marry, a law conveniently ignored by those who benefit from the ancient traditions confining and (ab)using the widows.
All this is in the context of Gandhi’s release from British jail and the anticipated overthrow of England’s yoke on that Crown Colony, but though Gandhi and his teachings are critical to the plot, it is not England’s iron grip that is choking the widows of India. Instead their living death issues from the manicured hands of their own most revered and trusted patriarchs.
The toothless old “Auntie,” widowed at nine, has been in the ashram for widows almost all her life. She remembers little of her marriage, if, indeed, she ever lived with the elderly spouse she was promised to, but Auntie certainly remembers the wedding feast, which to her nine-year-old eyes, was like a delightful birthday party overflowing with sweets. Now old and frail, she is fixated on that memory, the one sweet day of her drab and colorless eternity. In particular, she remembers “yellow ladoo, made with real butter.”
Chuyia, an eight-year-old widow herself, takes the money she gets from begging and buys Auntie her favorite sweet from a street vendor. It is hard to tell if the pleasure is greater for Auntie or Chuyia, who giggles from behind a stone pillar as she watches Auntie ravage the fried delicacy.
If you decide to make the ladoo, you may have to go to a specialty store to get the chickpea flour; “ghee” is simply clarified butter.
Or, if all of this is too much trouble, simply recall your favorite sweet from a long lost childhood memory and treat yourself to it.
For me, it would have to be one of those great indulgences I used to feast upon during Saturday matinees in Oak Park, Illinois, many moons ago. There were “Bull’s Eyes,” caramel circles with a white gooey center, “Milk Duds,” caramels covered with chocolate, and “Good and Plenty,” black and white sugared licorice bites. I have gained a pound just thinking about them.
- 3/4 cup gram (chick pea flour)
- 6 tb. ghee (clarified butter)
- 1/3 cup sugar
Sieve the chick pea (gram) flour. Heat the ghee in a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat and fry the flour until golden. Remove from the heat and cool. Add sugar and mix well. When cold, make into small balls about the size of a walnut.
Recipe Source: Imran Chaudhary