Framed between two horrific rides across a river (the first: the final journey for a dying husband and his seven-year-old bride; the other: same seven-year-old, now widow, back from an evening as a whore for a glad-to-pay member of India’s gentry), Deepa Mehta has tellingly captured a truly shameful record of systemic abuse of women whose only “mistake” was being unlucky enough to have married (nearly always arranged by their own parents) short-lived men. Like lepers, the widows were officially shunned by society, removed from their families (with full knowledge and assistance from their own kin) and the prettiest of them rented out as whores to pay for their miserable room and board.
Truly incredible is Sarala’s performance as the baby widow Chuyia. Her marvellously innocent visage fills the screen with beauty and grace that soon morphs to tantrums, foul mouth epithets and deadly revenge. The range of emotion is only matched by the magnificent songs and original music (Mychael Danna, A.R. Rahman), featuring the serene and haunting flute lines from Naveen (some of which were meant to be rendered by John Abraham, as the idealistic lawyer intent on spreading the ideology of Ghandi, but no one was fooled for a note).
Lisa Ray as Kalyani, the fairest of the widows so most in demand of many Brahmins (who believe they have the right to sleep with any woman), soars through her role with a compelling stoic simplicity.
By journey’s end, Ghandi has been released from jail and Chuyia is thrust into yet another trek into the totally unknown. But even as the train pulls out of the station with the notion of “Truth is God” still ringing from the famed leader, the screen’s recent statistics (34 million widows in present-day India) and the daily incidence of violence against women at home or in institutions give Mehta’s 1938 tale a currency that confirms the old adage “actions change, attitudes don’t.” JWR