By Hala Ali Aryan

UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

September 18, 2003

 

BONSALL . Type "Vrindavan" into an Internet search engine and you get tourist-oriented Web

sites full of photos and descriptions of an exotic holy land, where thousands of pilgrims flock

each year to worship Hinduism's Lord Krishna. "There are falls which are always pouring water,

and the sound is so sweet that it covers the sound of the crickets," says one site. "Birds are chirp-

ing, peacocks are crowing and dancing, and bees are humming." But type in "Vrindavan wid-

ows," and you get a different picture . one of castaway women kicked out by their families and

forced into lives of squalor, abuse and hopelessness. "If we say we are suffering, who is going to

bother?" one is quoted in a New York Times story. "We will still be alone, and we will still be left

with only one solution, to pray to God. It's our life, and we must live it, and hope for better in the

next." That is the image three local filmmakers hope the world will see, care about and act on.

Linda and Dharan Mandrayar of Bonsall and Hannah Kirby of Palomar Mountain are making a

film, titled "White Rainbow," about the plight of Indian widows. The treatment of these women

varies widely, from those who continue to live with their families with all the comforts they had

before their husbands died, to those who are ostracized from everything they've known and forced

into a life of begging and prostitution.

"We want to expose this as a societal issue, but be considerate of how Indian society views it-

self," Kirby said. "It will be a brutal story to watch, but it will show how change can be initiated."

Some of these widows end up spending the rest of their lives in poverty, chanting in temples in

holy cities in northern India. Vrindavan is one of these cities. Hindu pilgrims come to visit its

thousands of temples. Of Vrindavan's 475,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 are widows. Widows

have come to Vrindavan for at least 500 years because, in India, it is socially unacceptable for

widows to remarry. "In Christianity, it's until death do you part," said Linda Mandrayar. "In India,

it's longer." Hindu brides in India marry into their husbands' families, often severing ties with

their own.

Women who become widows, especially those from rural areas, often suffer what some call a

"social death." Their in-laws kick them out or force them to become their servants. For a poor

family, a widow is a financial burden. Many of the widows are teenagers. Some are sexually

abused by their brothers-in-law or are stripped of what makes them feminine . their brightly-

colored clothing, their jewelry. Sometimes, they're forced to shave or crop their hair. It is a wife's

bad karma, many believe, that caused her husband to die. Penniless and desperate, widows flee

for what they think will be a better life in cities like Vrindavan. Some are taken there for a pil-

grimage and then abandoned. They spend their days chanting four hours each morning and each

evening in temples for a cup of rice and a few cents. They live beneath stairwells, on filthy veran-

das or in makeshift shelters. Some, especially the younger ones, are forced into sex with land-

lords, policemen or Hindu holy men. Others take on menial jobs like washing men's hands at a

restroom. India had 33 million widows as of the 1991 Census, and the makers of "White Rain-

bow" say the number is now closer to 55 million. A rapid increase in the number of AIDS cases is

sure to make many more.

The Mandrayars own Dharlin Entertainment, a Bonsall-based independent film production com-

pany that makes movies in conjunction with two India-based companies. Dharan grew up in the

filmmaking industry in India and wrote the script for "White Rainbow." He learned about Vrin-

davan when his son read a novel about a 13-year-old widow banished to the holy city. At first, he

didn't believe it. After all, his mother was a widow and she wasn't mistreated. But after research-

ing the issue and eventually visiting Vrindavan, he learned it was true and knew he had to act. "I

saw widows in really miserable conditions," he said. "There's no joy in their singing. They're real

mournful. They looked in ill health and not well-kept. Everything we read and heard about

seemed to be true in worse ways than we imagined."

Dharan Mandrayar said some Indians have told him they don't want him to make the film because

he'll make India look bad, but he insists it's a human rights issue that needs to be addressed and

talked about. Many people in India, he said, don't even know about Vrindavan because people

don't talk about it. Linda Mandrayar and Kirby are producing the film. Since July, they have been

seeking investors in a limited-liability corporation to raise the $1.25 million needed to make it.

They need about $300,000 more. The two women go to people's homes to make presentations.

The film will be shot in India in December and January and the film's makers hope to get it on the

independent film festival circuit in the spring.

The film's protagonist, Priya, is an educated and affluent widow who flees to Vrindavan to escape

her in-laws who despise her, the filmmakers say. There, she befriends three women, whom she

teaches toread and write and helps them get their government pensions, which are often stolen

from widows. The film will tell the four women's stories and what they do to help the other

widows of Vrindavan. Dharan based the four characters on real stories he read and heard about

while in India.

One woman was cast out by her children and has spent 30 years in Vrindavan. Another, a 15-

year-old, was physically and sexually abused by her older husband and then by her brothers-in-

law after his death. She is forced into sexual servitude in Vrindavan. The third is a woman in her

early 30s who was disfigured when her mother-in-law poured kerosene over her and ignited it. "It

will be tough to make this picture, but then it's got to be that way if the truth is to be told," said

Dharan Mandrayar. "We're not going to whitewash it. It will not be pleasant to look at, but what I

saw wasn't pleasant, either."