Feminist director forced to stop filming in holy city

Hindus burn effigies of Deepa Mehta to protest her film about India's child widows.

Published February 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Conservative Hindus are fuming over director Deepa Mehta's current film project, "Water," which documents the plight of "child widows" forced into prostitution. In many parts of India it is still quite common for young girls to be married off to much older men.

If the husband dies, the girls -- often too young to even bear children -- become outcasts and remain dependent on their in-laws.

Mehta's cast and crew were harassed by a rampaging mob in the holy city of Varanasi and forced to flee after they were threatened with a public stoning, according to the International Herald Tribune. The sets of "Water" were torched once the crew left.

In Calcutta, West Bengal, militant Hindus growled that
they would burn Mehta and her lead actress, Shabana Azmi, in effigy if they dared to film in that city. Other states are friendlier: Maharashtra welcomed the project and Madhya Pradesh invited the crew despite "possible law and order problems."

Mehta's film in progress highlights the plight of an estimated 35 million Indian widows who are cruelly dismissed as undesirable because they have
neither a husband nor child. In West Bengal in-laws who don't want to share the dead husband's wealth with his widow frequently abandon the girl. A
widow's blood relatives are also often equally heartless for similar financial reasons. Unwanted by their kin, many become homeless and turn to prostitution or drug dealing for their survival.

Some widows, with their heads shaved, wander up the Ganges River to seek refuge in temples and ashrams where they're paid a pitiful penny per hour to chant all day.

The New Delhi government offers widows a minuscule pension, but many are unable to cash in on this meager amount because of the 64-percent illiteracy rate that plagues Indian women.

Without reading skills, many lack the ability to wade through bureaucracy necessary to get their money. Still others find themselves duped by thieving bank clerks and postal workers.

Mehta's pointed criticism in the film may prick India's conscience enough to at least improve education among women and alleviate the suffering of the outcast widows.

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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