Rising From the Ashes: Widows Through the Lens of Bollywood

In a world where a woman’s worth is attached to a man – husband in most cases – the death of a male counterpart mostly leaves women wondering about their future, fate and the social ostracisation that usually follows. Ratna, the servant in the movie Is Love Enough? Sir, is shown to be aware of her ‘social worth’ as a widow in her village when her husband dies. She knows that her identity will always be reduced to that of being a widow and she will never have any opportunity to grow. Hence, she leaves her village to work in Mumbai. The city, however alien, promises her the chance of fulfilling her dreams and living a life of dignity.

In one scene, we see Ratna removing her bangles while travelling back to her village for her sister’s wedding. It accurately depicts the contrast between the freedom she has as a domestic worker in a high-rise Mumbai apartment and what she has in her native village. Ratna’s decision to leave speaks volumes of her will to pave her own path of emancipation. Although Ashwin (her employer) gets her a job, she wants and accepts only what she deserves. As a woman with a lot of self respect, she agrees to work as an assistant to Ashwin’s friend, a fashion designer, who had humiliated her in front of everyone. Ratna looks past the woman’s classist behaviour and uses the system itself, aspiring to move up the social ladder and realise her dreams.

In the film, we see how she constantly makes Ashwin aware of her background, her struggles and her dreams as well as the potential embarrassment he may have to face when he expresses his love for her. Once she senses this awareness, she accepts his love by addressing Ashwin by his first name, instead of calling him ‘Sir’. This last shot in the film is that aha moment in her struggle for dignity.

In Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), another film about a widow, the only solution was escape. Kalyani (Lisa Ray) falls in love with an upper-class Gandhian and dreams of a life with him away from her widow ashram in Benaras. Although the film ends on a tragic note, we do see her escaping with the man, just like the other widowed character in the film. In Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog too, the widow is dependent on an external saviour, essentially a man, who will bring colours in her life.

But Vikas Khanna’s The Last Color is different. The saviour is neither a man nor a romantic interest. The film is about a middle-aged widow named Noor, living in a state-run ashram, who develops a friendship with a nine-year-old tightrope walker and flower seller, Chhoti, an outcast. Chhoti tries to befriend Noor with her another friend Anarkali, a transgender, and the story revolves around the inter-relationship between these three characters. A film about a widow, an outcaste and a transgender without a male saviour is something Bollywood wouldn’t have even imagined years ago.

The film, however, falls short in terms of the consistency of the story. For instance, we see how the widows in the ashram kill one of their fellow mates, 24 years ago, for applying nail paint. But two decades later, we see them embracing Holi colours. How did this social transition happen? We are never told. The Supreme Court as the redeemer also fails to impress.

Although this film doesn’t have a male saviour, there is however an external saviour who comes to the rescue of the main character. Seema Pahwa’s recent release Ram Prasad ki Tehrvi (2020) tries to break away from that trope. Here, Ammaji, the widow, neither has a post-widowhood love interest nor an external saviour. Also, we don’t see her escaping her house. A child’s act of playing a broken piano strikes Ammaji to carry forward his dead husband’s legacy of music and clear the loan her husband took to support their children. Ammaji, at 69, sets out to become an entrepreneur, while taking on challenges coming her way and flying with colours, quite literally and metaphorically.

Also read: When Will Bollywood Portray Widows as Complete Humans?

For 13 days – the ritualistic period of mourning post-death – she is caught in a dilemma: who to go with or live with. However, on fourteenth day – the day of emancipation of the departed soul – we see Ammaji liberating herself too from her own familial chains. Despite having a large family with many male members – four sons and a brother – she refuses to take refuge under any of them. It acts as a sarcastic reminder to her progeny of their perpetual dependency and the inability to give back, either emotionally or financially.

Umesh Bisht’s Pagglait (2021) is also centred around a widow who paves her own path of liberation during the 13 days of mourning. The story revolves around Sandhya, a young arranged-married widow, who decides to grieve the loss of her husband differently from what is expected. As the narrative progresses, Sandhya discovers  a dark truth – her husband might not have been faithful to her. As she tries to piece back her husband’s life together, her family realises that she will be inheriting her unfaithful husband’s money as his nominee. Hence, they try to convince her into marrying her husband’s cousin hoping to keep the money within the family.

Defying all the patriarchal plans, she refuses to remarry and also passes on the money to her in-laws making it loud and clear that it is not about money; it is about her choice. On day 14, she leaves the house and takes a bus to look for a job in a different city. And just like Ammaji in Ramprasad ki Tehrvi, Sandhya doesn’t go back to her mother who before the inheritance lottery was reluctant to embrace her.

Sandhya’s widowhood breaks from the conventional trope of widowhood in Bollywood and in society as well. Her actions reflect openness, and acceptance of husband’s death as an incident of change and not the typical crying and howling grief. She asserts that grief cannot be the same for everyone – each of us deal with it in our own ways. Therefore, it doesn’t always accompany a loud howling of emotions. Sandhya’s approach towards grief is embracing what you feel, even if it means nothing.

Her responses open a new arena of questions when it comes to widowhood. Imagine a husband is grieving the loss of wife and isn’t behaving the way someone should. Will anyone from the family even think about walking up to him and telling him how to grieve (like they tell Sandhya in the film)? Most unlikely.

They’d probably embrace whatever way the husband responds. Sandhya’s reaction to this is hence a way forward in breaking the gender roles society expects women to adhere to during grief, much like Amma Ji’s decision to start her own business despite the death of her husband. Taking unconventional steps usually unexpected, and unaccepted by society forbidden for women, both these and even Ratna’s character is a testimony that grief, or death of their husbands for that matter, don’t define their destiny, the women themselves do.

It is interesting to note how during the course of time, Bollywood movies have grown past the idea of man ‘saving’ the widow from atrocities of her widowhood and assuming the role of the knight in shining armour. The movies are a reflection of the society and sometimes vice-versa too. With movies like Chokher Bali, Dor, Is Love Enough? Sir, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, The Last Color, and Pagglait the widowhood narrative is changing and it must, for attaching the worth of a woman with her male counterpart is a concept we must do away with.

Aastha and Prashant work at the Centre for Civil Society. Views are personal.

Featured image credit: Tanya Jha