Death by Fire:
Sati, Dowry Death, and Female Infanticide in Modern India
by Mala Sen
We who live in the free-est of the free world may wonder how relative democracies would subjugate their people with arbitrary laws, policies and restrictions in the name of tradition. Where, one might ask, is the enlightenment from periods of darker ages? When is subjugation and inequality to be recognized for the brutalities they are? When will such fruits of fundamentalism be recognized for what they are: the taste for greed and power?
The sadistic mutilation of daughters of India is well known and has been widely reported. Other abuses that would outrage the conscience of civilized people are less well known. One of these is the subject of this film: the outlawing of widows.
Who would suspect that the death of a husband would condemn his widow to the status of a societal reject? What happens to Chuyia (Sarala) makes it even more bizarre. She's only 8 when it happens to her. That's 8 years old! -- too young to even know she's been married (to a much older man, of course). Consider the shock her youthful mind goes through when she learns of his death, and that she is to be ripped from the family home for a destiny of life in an ashram with other widows supposedly in "mourning."
If this weren't so outlandish and cold, you might think it's a comedy of errors. Shame on the society that cultivates such forms of denigration.
In 1930's India, laws have been passed allowing widows the freedom to remarry, expanding the traditional strictures which allow remarriage only to the younger brother of the deceased. But within the grip of stern Hinduism new laws are ignored, jilted.
After some considerable and understandable rebelliousness, little Chuyia meets her peers and gets to know them, a process that leads to newfound comfort in her situation and strong attachments to her elders. The first of these is the protective Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), whose natural qualities make her a guardian and proxy mother; the second, Kalyani (Lisa Ray), is the most attractive and sexually desirable of the ashram's widows.
Running the ashram like an overlord, which she is, Madhumati (Manorama) has all the style of a tyrannical witch. To provide rent and sustenance she works in a clandestine way with Gulabi (Raghuvir Yadav), a venal male confederate, to pimp her widows to men of wealth and high caste on the other side of the "tracks," that is, the Ganges river. From whence comes one of many references to water, including also the monsoon rains that are part of life in the city of Varanasi, and in recognition of its cleansing properties, a symbol of purification.
One day, Kalyani's dog, which she keeps in secret against ashram policies, gets loose and goes racing through the city. With Kalyani and Chuyia in hot pursuit, it runs them smack into a tall, men's HQ young man who is arrested by Kalyani's beauty. Only too glad to assist the winded trio, this free-thinking Brahmin, disciple of Ghandi, is Narayan (John Abraham), a man who has just been struck with love. In time, as his and Kalyani's feelings become strong and mutual, he proposes marriage. To a widow. But, what a widow.
On the river, Narayan transports Kalyani to meet his parents. But as she turns to see which house they're headed for, she insists they turn around. "Why?," he asks in desperate confusion. "Ask your father," she says with no further explanation. When he learns from his father that he's had Kalyani as a paid prostitute, he's disgusted by his father, but will Narayan stand up to the disgrace and marry Kilyani anyway?
The ending is a surprise and it involves Mohatma Ghandi during a train trip across the countryside. It implies a degree of improved thinking that might influence unjust taboos in this society, but ends with a haunting last frame that also implies the uncertainty of it all.
Writer-director Deepa Mehta deserves all the arthouse praise she is likely to receive for her expose' of inequalities--the third coming-into-the-modern-age part of a trilogy. It was been preceded by her 1996 "Fire" (re: lesbianism) and 1998's "Earth," all of which brought her great and dire threats from mobs of incensed fundamentalists who want no exposure of their cruelties. The destruction of the sets during her original production in Varanasi in 1999 closed it down, but in 2005 she completed "Water" in Sri Lanka under a false name. Her contribution toward the opening of eyes and minds in a well dramatized film is both meaningful entertainment and of inestimable social value. Though it's a story told from a feminist sensitivity, it seems to me that is the most relevant perspective for such an injustice to women. As Mehta is Canadian, "Water" is Canada's official entry for Best Foreign Language film in the Oscar contest.
There is nothing third world about Mehta's ability to cast a film. Abraham is as ideal for the suitor character as is the character's idealism, and he steadfastly provides that ray of hope of enlightenment that might shine into such mournful places as widows' ashrams. One-named Sarala is spirited and disarming as the child-widow.
Ray, however, is the crown jewel of the production. Almost indescribably beatiful, the best I can do is that this 36-year old Canadian from Toronto constantly brought to mind Ingrid Bergman. Ray may only have done 4 movies before this one, but she's got a lineup following it. Can't wait to see her again.
~~ Jules Brenner