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Real widows are worse off than reel widows of controversial film
Compiled by Mokhtar Alias

HOLY Hindu town, Varanasi, is about 670 kilometers (420 miles) southeast of New Delhi. On the banks of India's holiest river, a film company is trying to capture the heartbreak of being a widow in the 1930s, in a project that has stirred outraged accusations that the movie insults Hindu tradition.

But just a few feet (meters) from the set is a dingy shelter for widows, where reality is far more pathetic than anything that will appear in producer Deepa Mehta's film Water.

Life seems to stand still in the dim light, where eight women sit listlessly, often staring blankly at the peeling walls. In a corner of the room is a small Hindu shrine where they recite their daily prayers, seeking salvation from their misery.

Associated Press reported that right-wing activists say they will block the shooting of the film, even though the Canadian-Indian producer and director has approval from Prime Minister Atal Bihari
Vajpayee's government after making several script changes.

Ashok Singhal, leader of the Hindu World Council, said the film smacks of the conspiracy by the votaries of Western culture to tarnish the image of widowhood in India.

But some social workers say the plight of widows represents the worst form of discrimination against women in India, deeply bound in ancient and unshakable tradition. Superstitious families say widows are bad luck, and blame them for the death of their husbands. Hindus frown on remarriage for women, although there are no social barriers for men.

Like many widows, Vibha was shunned and abandoned by her in-laws when her husband was killed two years ago in a road accident. Vibha, who uses one name, ceased being a part of her own family when she married. At 40, and with two children, she had no place to go. She drifted to Varanasi, an ancient holy city, where she found refuge with other widows in the basement of the Ganapathi Guest House on the Ganges River.

Once I became a widow, no one cared about me at home, she said to AP.

Before the first frame was shot of Mehta's film, a mob of 500 demonstrators ransacked the set on Jan. 30.

Deepa Mehta, the Canadian film-maker, denies the film is anti-Hindu. Without disclosing the script, she says the film revolves around a young widow who defies the social stigma of widowhood and seeks to lead a normal life.

Shabana Azmi, one of India's leading actresses and a member of India's parliament, shaved her head, and rising star Nandita Das cropped her long hair to portray outcast widows.

Set in holy Hindu town of Varanasi in the 1930s, "Water" is the final part of Indian-born Mehta's trilogy about her mother country. The film script reportedly deals with impoverished widows being sexually exploited and depicts an inter-caste love affair -- taboo in traditional Hindu society.

Her second film, Fire, was pulled from some theaters after violent protests. It told the story of two sisters-in-law who turn to each other for comfort in a dysfunctional joint family, and have a lesbian relationship.

She feared organizations opposed to her film Water would release the script of her movie to further jeopardize the filming of the project and create social tensions.

I have come to understand that certain organizations are planning to publish and release the script of my film Water. I reserve my right to take legal action against any unauthorized release or publication of the whole or part of the script, Mehta said in a statement.

Uttar Pradesh state authorities had ordered Mehta to stop the filming and pack up, according to The United News of India.

In 1991, an ancient mosque in the state was demolished by Hindu zealots, sparking nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots.

In other development, Mehta is considering moving her latest project on Indian widows to a new locale after violent protests led to a ban on shooting in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.