A film set in 1938 in an unspecified city ( could be Varanasi ) but shot on location in Sri Lanka due to the controversies it generated. It is set in a widow's "home"--a place where widows ranging from child-brides to old women are claimed to have been removed to live out the remainder of their lives in a kind of ghettoised existence. The film closes with a written message to the effect that such continues to be--in 2005, when the film was released-- the plight of large numbers of widows. When I look around me I find merry enough widows from all sections of society ranging from maid-servants to affluent matrons pretty much free to do whatever they want and marry as many times as they wish. To suggest that Indian society continues to be governed by codes of antiquity is to pander to western audiences of the kind looking for a rope trick. It is little more than a taste for the sordid.. Even if conditions of the sort did exist at some time in some pocket's, to project it as a generalised picture of this country, is disinformation of a very distasteful and harmful kind, specially where people abroad are concerned, who would naturally take it at face value. Raking non existent or extinct muck is a more apt description than windmill-tilting. Mehta does no service through this movie to her ancestral homeland.
Nowhere does it touch a chord of reality. Ebert's comparison of the film to Ray in it's portrayal of destitution seems very inappropriate. It is probably a case of giving grace marks or lowering the benchmark to encourage third world cinema, which it isn't. Ray's capture of Varanasi in the second of his famous trilogy was electrifying in it's authentic portrayal of a city with a cultural roots hearkening to millenia . Deepa Mehta's cinematography does not rise above picture-postcard exoticism--the palm trees swaying in the background are quite jarring-- and her characters do not come alive, specially the lead pair, prime Bollywood icons. Lisa Ray and Abraham are quite pathetic, unable to figure out what genre the film belongs to. Seema Biswas, as one of the inmates of the ashram, gives a fine portrayal and seems to have matured since her Bandit Queen which was somewhat over board. Some of the minor characters, like the devilish ashram ma'am ( Manorama ), the eunech ( Raghubir Yadav ) and Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the benovelent priest give interesting performances. The star of the film is Sarala Kariyawasam, a non-hindi speaking Sri Lankan girl as the rebellious eight year old widow who injects whatever life the drab film posesses through a spirited performance.
A very mediocre film with a special masala mix targetting different audiences: songs and good looking dummies for Bollywood; presumptiously appropriation of a non existent exoticism to cater to the western crowds; taking on social non- issues for the festivals. Among NRI film-makers I would place Gurinder Chadha above Mehta for having caught the pulse of a piece of India. Bride and Prejudice was an uninhibited delight .
In any case, I intend to go through with the rest of the trilogy, to complete my collection of specimens.
Roger Ebert's review