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Photo by Noemi Weis

The Forgotten Woman

Oscar-nominated film focuses on the plight of widows in colonial India

By Patricia Ingold

Directed by Dilip Mehta (Hamilton Media/Filmblanc)
Reviewed by Patricia Ingold

The Forgotten Woman might never have been made had it not been for the success of Deepa Mehta’s acclaimed Water, her Oscar-nominated film focusing attention on the plight of widows in colonial India. The Forgotten Woman is directed by her brother Dilip Mehta, a photojournalist who wants the film to create “total awareness” of age-old Indian traditions and attitudes toward widows that prevail today: widows can still be banished from the household, stripped of their property and even blamed for the death of their husbands. Many flee voluntarily to avoid beating, and live in temples as they wait to die.

The film opens in the temples of Vindrivan, where we are introduced to the personal stories of elderly widows. They beg and pray, and eat the small amount of rice allowed to them each day. In one unforgettable sequence in a nearby crematorium, a woman contemplates her future in the ashes rising into the sky. The film’s point is that it doesn’t matter who the widow is or where she comes from, she is still marginalized. In contrast, several men whom Mehta interviews vigorously defend their traditional attitudes.

Mehta gives significant screen time to Dr. Ginny Shrivastava, a Canadian whose work has been supported by the Mission and Service Fund for the past 40 years. Shrivastava founded the Association of Strong Women Alone, where widows meet to share stories and empower one another. A diaconal minister who once served as director of Christian education at Chalmers United in Kingston, Ont., Shrivastava says these “confessionals” have encouraged some women to fight for the property they once owned.

Shrivastava reminds us there are more widows in India than there are people in Canada. Attitudes toward them may slowly be changing, but The Forgotten Woman is nevertheless sometimes difficult to watch. Mehta’s potent images succeed in creating the awareness he seeks.

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