'Water' Fires Up Hindu Controversy

May 26, 2006 — -- A film about Hindu society's treatment of widows is under attack for a second time by Hindu nationalists in the Indian holy city of Varanasi.

"Water," which premiered recently in New York, is Indian-born film director Deepa Mehta's portrayal of widows living in subhuman conditions in a Varanasi ashram -- or sanctuary -- in the 1930s.

Members of the right-wing Hindu group, the Shiv Sena, have been burning pirated DVDs of the movie and warning shopkeepers not to stock it.

When Canada-based Mehta filmed by the Ganges River in Varanasi in 2000, angry Hindu mobs launched violent protests, demolishing the set and equipment and threatening Mehta because the film was "anti-Hindu."

Mehta was forced to film in Sri Lanka instead.

"We will not allow the film to be shown here. It insults Hindu sentiments and depicts Hindu culture in a poor light," said Gaurav Sharma, a member of the Shiv Sena.

Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray, based in Mumbai, has been quoted in the Indian press as saying that Mehta is the person he hates most in the world.

In 1998, Shiv Sena gangs violently disrupted the Mumbai matinee showing of an earlier Mehta film, "Fire," which portrays a lesbian relationship. The gangs smashed windows and burnt posters.

Although the Supreme Court ordered that protection be given to cinema halls, the owners were too frightened to show the film.

In Varanasi, Sharma said that any cinema hall in the country that showed the movie would "face the consequences."

"Water" shows abandoned widows living in extreme poverty, some of whom are forced into prostitution by powerful Hindu priests who run homes for widows at holy Hindu sites.

Hindu nationalists say that these conditions no longer exist but a visit to the ashram where widows live -- whether in Varanasi or Vrindavan in north India that is known for its large widow population -- can vouch for the fact that little has changed.

Widows must wear only white; break their bangles; stop wearing jewelry; shun meat, hot food and sweets; keep away from happy occasions such as weddings and births; and, in many cases, shave their heads.

According to orthodox tradition, widows of high caste Hindus are responsible for their husband's death by having brought him bad luck. They are not allowed to live with a family -- neither their parents nor their own children -- or to remarry.

These rules are intended to demonstrate that a widow is only half-human after her husband's death and must therefore lead a life of penance until she can join her dearly departed into the afterlife.

Mehta's film brings these harsh traditions into sharp focus.