White Rainbow Depicts the Misfortunes of Indian Widowhood

Sati, the Indian practice of burning a widow at her husband's funeral, has been banned for over a century. But Linda Mandrayar, co-producer of the independent film, White Rainbow, explains that in modern times, "widows are destined for a social death." Girls from poorer, more religious families are traditionally married in their teens and, when inevitably widowed, they become not just a financial burden to their in-laws, but a curse. Rather than act as a family servant, some women flee to holy cities in northern India where they spend their days praying for better fortune in the next life. Others are forcefully taken by their families and abandoned in the streets. Thousands of outcast widows float through these holy lands, sleeping in alleyways and chanting in the temples in exchange for food.

When her 13-year old son brought home a reading assignment about an abused teenage widow, Linda Mandrayar felt the makings of a film. She recounted the story to her husband, Dharan (Ele, My Friend), who, despite being raised in India, had never heard of the practice. "I made a trip to India to see if it was really true, and sadly, it was," Dharan told the audience of a recent screening at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, organized by the non-profit, Women in Film. In preparation to write the fictional script, he read thousands of testimonies from real Indian widows. Drawing on common themes of poverty, isolation, and abuse, he created four characters to represent the experiences of thousands.

The heroine of the film, Priya, played by well-known Indian actress Sonali Kulkarni, is an upper class woman who flees to Vrindavan, the "city of widows", after her husband's sudden death. There she crosses paths with three desperate women, each of whom has suffered a unique torture: one grossly disfigured in a fire set intentionally by her mother-in-law, another abandoned by her children after her husband's death, and the youngest widowed as a teenager and forced into prostitution. The two younger women pass their time as thousands of widows do: sitting on the temple floors, chanting to the Lord Krishna for eight hours each day to earn a bowl of rice.

A few years ago, a Canadian director's attempt to make a film about Indian widow abuse literally went down in flames: her sets were burned, riots broke out, and her life was threatened. Conservative Hindu groups say that a film like this is disrespectful and exploitative, and they fiercely condemn anyone who tries to bring the situation to international attention. Knowing that they would be targeted by similar protests, the Mandrayar's company, Dharlin Entertainment, partnered with the Indian company Savaji Productions to recreate the northern city of Vrindavan in a southern town 1,000 miles away. This mock city was the site of almost all filming for the movie, save for a clandestine three-day shoot during which the small crew pretended to be tourists. Before conservative groups even learned of the project's existence, photography had wrapped, the sets had been taken down, and the Mandrayars were back in the US and on their way to the editing room.

A recent New Delhi screening of White Rainbow was attended by the Prime Minister of India's wife, the former Prime Minister of India, and various other international dignitaries. Locally, the Mandrayars have also been finding support for the project. On August 25th, as part of their opening benefit weekend, the Milla Angelina gallery, one of many to move to historic downtown LA as part of the creation of Gallery Row, hosted an exhibit that showcased a series of black and white stills taken during the filming of the movie. White Rainbow will be screened as part of the Mill Valley International Film Festival in October and on the opening night of the Reel Women International Film Festival in March, 2005.

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