The acting and actors were superb. Seema Biswas (Bandit Queen) did not fail to amaze in the role of Shakuntala, the aging widow, stern yet compassionate, honest enought to confess that she is not free from desire to her priest, for whom she may feel a forbidden love, her crushed face a picture of misery when she asks the child widow "how do I look" and gets the blunt answer "old."
Unlike the mainstream reviews that raved about the child actor who plays Chuyia, I wasn't too enamoured by her acting. Lisa Ray was a good choice, being relatively unknown and fresh-faced. A big Bollywood name would have been a distraction. There was real chemistry between her (in the role of the young widow Kalyani) and her lover (John Abraham). The latter is a good-looking hunk and should be eyeing Hollywood if he hasn't already.
What I found grating about the movie were several obvious directorial goofs and the heavy handed political statement in the end. The goofs involved inverted swastikas on the ashram walls, a wedding ceremony (that too a South Indian one) on the burning ghats of Varanasi (called Rawalpur in the movie but very obviously a north Indian town) within sight of a burning pyre, and the mother of all goofs, widows playing Holi. Even masala director Ramesh Sippy knew better in his megabuster "Sholay" where the widow (played by Jaya Bhaduri) cannot not participate in the Holi revelry -- "Holi ke din dil mil jaate hain."
Finally, why did I get the feeling that DM was playing to North American and western audineces? The film ends with a statement informing the audience that according to the 2001 Indian Census there are 34 million widows living in India today. What was the purpose? To tell that the 34 million widows in 2006 suffer the same fate as the widows in the ashram did in 1938? Besides, widow ashrams, bad as they were, were not for all widows. They were for mainly poor Brahmin widows whose families could/would not care for them. Also they were mostly from eastern India.
I don't want to trivialize the agony of the widows in the ashrams -- it was real, but to make it seem that it happens all over India and in all castes, communities, regions, IMO, is pure dishonesty. I don't know of any such ashrams in South India. Besides, women of the "working" castes -- now called Schedule Castes and OBCs -- were known to have remarried after being widowed or divorced. I couldn't help thinking of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen whose movies so eloquently depicted misery and societal dysfunction that they didn't need to insert statistics for shock effect.
My feeling that the movie was meant for a less informed (about India) audience turned out right when my American campanion, with whom I saw the movie, remarked "So sad that 34 million women are suffering like this."
-- Shipra Mandal
Film description: Set in 1938 Colonial India, against Mahatma Gandhi's rise to power, the story begins when eight-year-old Chuyia is widowed and sent to a home where Hindu widows must live in penitence. Chuyia’s feisty presence affects the lives of the other residents, including a young widow, who falls for a Gandhian idealist.