By Neha Kirpal
For hundreds of years, widows in India have been mistreated, ostracised, considered inauspicious, and seen as a burden by their families and Hindu society at large. March 2013 was the first time that widows played with colour during the festival of Holi at Vrindavan, known as the ‘city of widows’ due to the sheer number of widows abandoned there by their families.
Overturning a 400-year-old tradition, the Supreme Court of India passed a historic decision in 2012, ruling that the government must provide widows food, medical care, a sanitary place to live, and respectful last rites. This helped change things manifold.
Widows, who were once barred from wearing colour, opted for clothes dyed blue, burnt orange and pink. Laughter was heard in ashrams, and some began wearing flowers in their hair. Moreover, mindsets and attitudes towards previously considered blasphemous practices such as remarriage have become more acceptable in recent years.
In 2017, the Supreme Court went a step further to assure India’s 40 million widows a pension, access to healthcare and nutrition, vocational training and education.
Following in the legacy of masterful films made about widows in India – from the Bengali Shwet Patharer Thala (1992) to Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005) – Prime Video’s The Last Color is the directorial debut of Michelin-star chef Vikas Khanna, based on his 2018 novel by the same name. The film brings out several taboos, stigmas and customs that people hold about widows, most of which are baseless and stuck in time.
After being married to an old man who died shortly afterwards, Noor (played by Neena Gupta) has been living in the state government’s widow ashram in Benaras.
Like all the other widows, she is only allowed to wear white, and can never step out after sunset nor drink anything other than water. Yet, Noor often longs for her younger days, and imagines herself wearing kajal and bindi.
Chhoti (played by Aqsa Siddiqui) is a nine-year old tightrope walker and flower seller belonging to the lowest caste considered ‘untouchables’. Their friendship is shown to bloom in touching ways – a dance here, a bottle of pink nail polish there.
While Noor and Chhoti are two playful peas in a pod, all the other widows in the ashram are afraid to break any so-called rules – such as wearing any kind of colour.
The film’s male characters do their bit in depicting patriarchal attitudes that are prevalent in society, regularly harassing, abusing and sexually assaulting women and transwomen. Through a tragic twist in the tale, the film moves to a slightly more hope-filled conclusion 24 years later.
At 90 minutes long, the film is just the right length to deal with a serious subject like this one. Though slow initially, its storyline picks up as the film goes on. Moreover, with its several light moments, it doesn’t seem heavy or preachy. It does, however, run the risk of the Slumdog Millionaire cliché – a story about ‘real India’ told through a Western perspective.
But that is more than made up by performances of the two strong female leads, who play their roles to perfection – not to mention some beautiful frames that capture the essence of Benaras well – its ghats, streets, bazaars, sunsets at the Ganges and the evening aarti.
Cut to 2020, we have a web series called Black Widows, a dark comedy on Zee5, in which three women, all of whom have been in abusive marriages, decide to take revenge and kill their husbands. Contrary to earlier times, these modern women actually find freedom in their widowhood.