Deepa Mehta’s film ‘Water’ (2005), which was not allowed to be shot in India by a handful of fundamentalists, was a trenchant commentary on the pathetic condition of widows living in Varanasi in the pre-independence era. ‘Water’ also depicted how deep- seated social evils are not so easy to eradicate even though we have allowed the winds of change to blow across our country. Some steps were even taken by our colonial rulers to better the lot of Indian women.
For instance, the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act was passed in 1856. After India achieved independence, the first significant step taken by our parliament to empower women was to pass the Hindu Succession Act of 1956. It was a significant piece of legislation which gave Indian women the same inheritance rights as are allowed to men. But, in spite of these progressive measures, the ground reality unfortunately still remained by and large unchanged.
It is because ingrained social evils are not so easy to get rid of. Particularly in rural India, where traditional beliefs and orthodoxy still hold sway, women find themselves discriminated against by an aggressively male-dominated society. In this respect, our film industry’s role should not be ignored. From time to time, meaningful films have been made to dispel cobwebbed old beliefs. In ‘Baabul’ (2008), produced by B R Chopra and directed by Ravi Chopra, the paterfamilias Balraj Kapoor (Amitabh Bachchan) has been depicted as a strong-willed man who has a progressive outlook on life. He loves his wife Shobhana and son Avinash (Salman Khan). Avinash, after completing his education abroad, comes home to be with his parents.
He falls in love with a beautiful girl named Malvika Talwar or Millie. Avinash and Millie get married with their parents’ blessings. Their happiness knows no bounds when less than a year after their marriage they are blessed with a son. But then tragedy strikes the Kapoor family. Avinash dies in an accident and the Kapoor family is devastated. However, as time passes, the Kapoor family and their daughter-in- law Millie recover from the shock of this tragedy. Balraj Kapoor is now worried about Millie. She is young and has her whole life before her.
Balraj wants her to regain happiness in life. Before her marriage with Avinash, Millie was quite friendly with Rajat (John Abraham) who secretly loved her but never expressed his feelings openly. Much the most powerful moments of this film are those where Balraj Kapoor comes forward to announce that he is in favour of Millie marrying Rajat so that she does not have to spend the rest of her life as a disconsolate widow. Our filmmakers’ progressive approach to the contentious issue of widow remarriage is not of recent origin. In fact, it was very much in evidence even in the early days of the talkies in India. Eighty years ago, a Hindi film entitled ‘Anath Ashram’ (1937), starring Prithviraj Kapoor, Umashashi and Jagdish Sethi was made.
It revolved round the life of a widow who remarries when her husband, working in a colliery, meets with an accident and dies. In those days, in the traditional Hindu society it was almost a taboo to even talk about widow remarriage. In 1947 came Filmistan made a film entitled ‘Sindhoor’. It starred Kishore Sahu and Shamim. The film was directed by Kishore Sahu. It revolved round the life of a young widow with a three-yearold kid. As she has no one in this world to look after her and her child, a distant relative who is a prosperous contractor in a city offers her shelter in his home. The widow with her child comes to live there.
The contractor’s elder son is a well-educated man who is not inhibited by decadent old traditions of the Hindu society. As time passes, the young man and the young widow come close to each other. They fall in love and want to marry. The contractor’s family is outraged by this bold and unconventional move of their scion. They are totally against this marriage, but the young man resolutely sets aside his family’s objections and marries the widow. The film ends on a happy note, with the widow finding a loving husband and her child a caring father. In 1956 B.R. Chopra made ‘Ek Hi Rasta’, starring Ashok Kumar, Meena Kumari and Sunil Dutt.
The middle-class family of Amar (Sunil Dutt) and Malti (Meena Kumari) live with their young son Raja (Daisy Irani) a very happy and contented life. Amar works for the firm of a kind-hearted employer named Prakash Mehta (Ashok Kumar). One day Amar finds two employees of this firm indulging in malpractices. He fearlessly intercepts their criminal activity, as a result of which the employees lose their jobs. But they revenge themselves on Amar when they crush him under the wheels of their truck. Amar’s death shatters his wife Malti.
She has no one in this world to fall back upon. But Prakash Mehta, the employer of Amar, comes forward to protect her from the evil designs of those living around her. In ‘Ek Hi Rasta’ B R Chopra exposed the hollowness of our superstitious beliefs which deny widows the right to marry again. Thefilm was a box office hit. However, there are some widows whose life ends tragically chiefly because the orthodox and narrow-minded people on whose mercy they live are deadly against their rehabilitation. They think that a widow is an illomened person whose very presence in a house brings bad luck to the inmates.
So, she is virtually ostracized from social life and condemned to live in obscurity. V Shantaram’s ‘Subha Ka Tara’ (1953), starring Jaishree and Pradeep Kumar was also the story of one such widow who was always cursed and maligned by her close relatives and neighbours. For a while a ray of light penetrates her dark world when a young man falls in love with her and wants to marry her. But the film ends on a tragic note when the widow, shamelessly persecuted by her relatives, is driven to set herself afire. The film ends with the death of the widow. Another notable film which has dealt with widow remarriage in a constructive way is Raj Kapoor’s ‘Prem Rog’.
In this film Devdhar (Rishi Kapoor), a poor orphan, is in love with Manorama (Padmini Kohlapuri) who is the daughter of a rich and powerful Thakur (Shammi Kapoor) of a village. Devdhar goes away from the village for higher education. He returns to the village after eight years and finds that in his absence Manorama was married to a rich and handsome Thakur, but was widowed soon and had to return to her parental home. Devdhar is still in love with her and wants to marry this widow, but the hakur thinks it beneath his dignity and status that his daughter should marry a poor orphan who has no status in society. The film was a telling comment on our fossilized thinking about widow remarriage. Our filmmakers have never shied away from taking up controversial social issues and making meaningful films on them.