Until today, the city of Vrindavan was only known to me as a place where Lord Krishna spent his childhood days as per the scriptures that I’ve heard of. It is about 15 Km away from Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna. Both Vrindavan and Mathura are located in Uttar Pradesh, a state in the north region of India. Today, I came across a reality about both of these cities that left me shook for a while.
I saw the advertisement for the film White Rainbow while randomly surfing the Netflix website last week. Since I’d heard only positive things about the leading lady Sonali Kulkarni‘s acting prowess, I decided to order the film, not for the film’s merit or lack thereof but for Kulkarni’s acting. I received it this morning and popped it in the DVD player at lunch time. Unaware of what to expect, I sat back with a drink in one hand and a book in the other. The next two hours showed me a reality that I wasn’t prepared to ingest on a lazy afternoon.
From an artistic point of view, I didn’t appreciate the film much. Editing was poor, storyline was loose, characters were superficially stereotyped, and the acting was average. However, what saves the film is the sincere effort on the part of the crew behind the camera and the cast on screen to present a real situation in as realistic a manner as possible. Some critics may say that the film was made for the audience outside of India and looked more like a documentary than like a fictional drama as it is marketed. I am inclined to agree with the critics but I cannot write off the effort that the team behind the film put to make a film on such a hard hitting topic that most of us ignore to even admit that it exists.
The film attempts to highlight the plight of more than 15,000 widows who are living in Vrindavan (and Mathura) after being ostracized by their own families and the society that they grew up in, married in, and raised their families in. They come to Vrindavan after being driven out of their own homes just because their husbands died. Yes, it still happens! I thought that widow segregation was a thing of the past but, apparently, it’s still going on in a section of society especially in North Indian states like West Bengal. Women whose husbands die have to get their head shaved, dress in white, and lead lives as social outcastes regardless of their age or move to Vrindavan and live amongst many others like them in ashrams of Vrindavan until they die.
(WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD)
The film begins with Sonali Kulkarni’s character sitting on the beach in her backyard (yes, she and her husband are that rich) and writing about her happiness about her pregnancy that she can’t wait to share with her husband of four years. Soon after, when she has baked a cake for him and set champagne on the dining table and changed into a gorgeous sari, she hears the news of his death in an accident. Then onwards, her life slips down on a series of downward spirals. She loses her child, her friends, and has no support of her family or in-laws. She had lost her own parents when she was much younger. So, she goes through a major depressive stage with white sarees, cutting her hand with glass, boozing and overdosing on prescription pills et al (all cliches possible) but somehow survives it all. I really don’t know how she pulls herself together because the movie doesn’t say but she does pull herself together. After her overdosing scene, we see her on her way to Vrindavan where she had heard from her spiteful mother in law that all widows must go. At first, I thought she was going to join the widows in Vrindavan (since, as I mentioned, the movie didn’t show that she had pulled herself together and successfully operated a huge company as we later discover in the movie). However, it turned out that she had read about the plight of Vrindavan’s widows and haunted by her mother in law’s remarks, she decided to go see Vrindavan for herself and see if she could help considering that she was also one of the women there: a widow. There she meets three women and strikes a friendship with them to help them fight for their rights, and White Rainbow is a collective story of these four women.
One woman was shunned by her grown up children when she lost her husband and now worked as a maidservant in Vrindavan. Second woman was widowed in her teens. Her husband of an arranged child marriage was an abusive man. After his death, she was repeated raped by his younger brothers until she chose to move to Vrindavan. Even in Vrindavan, the caretaker of the ashram she lived in raped her and used her for prostitution. Third woman worked as a domestic help in one of the temple priest’s house. She had also lost her husband at a young age, and now in her twenties, she wanted to be a mother. She is impregnated by the priest who apparently also rapes her although it’s not clearly shown in the film. However, she is forced to abort her child and loses her life in the process which apparently happens often in Vrindavan in reality.
(SPOILER ENDS HERE)
Through the stories of the other three female characters, the movie touches on the following topics:
1. Present day widow segregation
2. Miserable living conditions of widows in Vrindavan with food they have to beg for, no healthcare, no proper housing, and nothing to call their own
3. Rape and physical abuse of these women especially the younger ones by the caretakers of ashram
4. Child marriages that are still happening and the resultant child widows
5. Taboo of widow remarriage that holds strong to this day
I can write the sordid details of each of these topics but need I repeat the same information that the vast expanse of internet will open up for you with merely typing a few words in Google? For example, following are some interesting reads:
3. Plight of child widows who lose their husbands even before they reach the legal marriageable age. In many parts of the country, child marriages are still common wherein girls as young as 5 are married to much older men. By the time they are 14 or 15 and ready to be sent to their in-laws house, their husbands are well into their old age and often die a few years after their young wives come to live with them. Many such girls, who are widowed at young age, have to go through the same customs as all widows by never remarrying, living a segregated life, simply because they lost a husband who they were arranged to marry when they couldn’t even say their own name.
4. The latest national census counts widows living in locations across the Republic of India with numbers that reach millions. The largest number of widows currently living together in ashrams located in northern India are in Vrindavan. Conditions in some of the ashrams of Vrindavan go from terrible, where sexual use and trafficking of younger widows occurs, to better ashram houses set up by leading women activists, like Dr. Giri and the Guild of Service, that encourage greater dignity for widows through better health care, by gaining learning skills like sewing and weaving and literacy training.
These are just a few of many resources widely written all over the internet. It’s only a matter of interest to dig into them and introduce ourselves to a world that most of us won’t even have known existed.
“Many Indians shrug off widow abuse. It’s been like this for centuries as the accepted way of life. The husband is called a god and the minute a woman loses her god, she becomes a zero,” Mohini Giri, a leading Indian activist for widows’ rights, was quoted as saying.
Giri, herself a widow, founded the New Delhi-based Guild of Service in 1972, a volunteer organisation that helps widows and organises classes to teach them various skills so that they can support themselves.
I, myself, am not sure about how I am going to take this thought any further. All I know is that I had to put these thoughts down to enable myself to feel lighter. I wish I had it in my reach to be able to do something to change the societal mindset but as we’ve often discussed on Unchaahi’s blog, change is happening albeit at a slow rate. We need to remain optimistic. Still, movies like White Rainbow, although not great in creative content, do remind us of a truth that we conveniently forget warped up in our own defintions and distortions of reality. More movies as such should be made so that we can all be exposed to the harshness of conditions that a part of humanity braves in order to appreciate the perks that we enjoy.
Images courtesy: http://widowsofvrindavan.blogspot.com
ps: An interesting fact that came up in the film was that all of these widows strongly believe that they are now married to Lord Krishna. It’s brainwashed into their psyche that after their husband dies, Lord Krishna is their husband and they have to be in Vrindavan to worship him. That’s another pull that attracts them to Vrindavan.