Nov. 17. (Guardian News Service): At next year's Oscars, India risks being severely embarrassed by a controversial film depicting the harsh treatment suffered by the country's Hindu widows.
Already the bete noir of various Hindu political groups, Canada-based director Deepa Mehta had to abandon the filming of Water in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in 2000 after angry mobs wrecked the set by the River Ganges and destroyed the equipment. Eventually, she had to finish shooting in Sri Lanka.
But India has been thrown on the back foot by Canada nominating Mehta's film as its entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Oscars. It's all the more embarrassing because Water has not even been shown in India since its release last year. So far, only one distributor has been willing to take on the film for fear that angry Hindu nationalists would stone or burn cinema halls showing the film.
Her earlier film Fire about a lesbian relationship between two Indian sisters-in-law trapped in joyless marriages provoked the wrath of Hindu groups. Violent gangs attacked cinema halls in Bombay where the film was showing in 1998 and screenings were stopped.
'Every society has weak points. It's shameful that she always makes films about India's weak points for foreign countries. Why doesn't she show how the west dumps its old people in homes?' asks Omkar Bhabi, spokesman for Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) group.
For her part, Mehta says she cannot believe the irony of the Oscar nomination. 'A film about the widows of India in Hindi, which I had to shoot in Sri Lanka because I wasn't allowed to shoot in my home country, is now going to the Oscars as Canada's official entry,' she says.
Although Water looks at the plight of widows during the 1930s during the rise of the freedom struggle against British colonial rule, little has changed in the way many widows are rejected by their families and shunned by society.
After their husband's death, they must wear only white, stop wearing jewellery and eating meat (meat, the belief goes, arouses carnal desires), keep well away from happy occasions such as weddings and births and often shave their heads.
These rules are intended to demonstrate that a widow is only half-human after her husband's death. She must be avoided for she brings bad luck. In fact, she is held responsible for her husband's death.
Vrindavan, a Hindu holy town in north India, is known as the City of Widows because of the estimated 16,000 widows who have sought sanctuary there from the loathing they inspire in Indians.
Donations by Hindu pilgrims to the city's 5,000 temples allow the temple authorities to provide them with lodgings and a modicum of food. But many end up begging or being forced into prostitution.
'After my husband died, my two sons and daughters-in-law threw me out of my own house. They said I didn't earn so why should they feed me,' says Paro Sharma who has languished in Vrindavan for 28 years after being thrown out her house in Cooch Behar district of West Bengal.
Some, widowed early, are young. Others are ancient, toothless, wizened collections of bones lying on the ground in threadbare saris with their worldly belongings tied up in a small gunny bag that doubles up as a pillow.
'In India, a woman is only revered as a mother, daughter and wife,' says Mohini Giri, a well known campaigner for widows who runs a home in Vrindavan that offers widows some dignity. 'Without a man by her side, women have no social status.'
Giri has also produced a film about widows – The White Rainbow – which has been shown abroad but not in India. 'I got death threats from Hindu fanatics when they heard about it. They want widows to be permanently vulnerable so that men can sexually assault them and rape them,' she says.
To illustrate how little has changed in the new India of booming economic growth, prosperity, consumerism and shopping malls, Giri, a widow herself, says that she was humiliated at her great niece's wedding recently.
'At the most auspicious moment, the bride's sister turned to me and said 'Auntie, do you mind just leaving the room for a few minutes please?' They thought I would bring bad luck! And they were all educated and rich people,' she says.
Indians will soon be able to judge the film for themselves. Bombay film producer Ravi Chopra has just announced that he is prepared to brave the fury of Hindu fundamentalists by distributing it.
'I loved the movie. It's beautiful. I see nothing in that should offend sensibilities. Before people protest, they should see it first,' he says.
But VHP national convenor Prakash Sharma is already incandescent. 'We will not tolerate any screening under any circumstances. We will attack cinemas if necessary because it's a conspiracy to tarnish the image of India,' he says.