More than 20 years after she left Delhi for the Meera Sahabhagini women’s shelter for widows in Vrindavan, 80-year-old Manu Ghosh returns home in Kavita Bahl and Nandan Saxena’s documentary Krishna’s Waiting Room. After a few moments of silence with her son, Manu declares to the camera, “This is my little rascal.” Her son, Benu Ghosh, tries to persuade her to stay back, but she gently dissuades him, “Where do I have the time?”
Commissioned by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, Krishna’s Waiting Room is a chronicle of the lives of many such widows in Vrindavan, who await their death in the holy city. The 54-minute documentary is a part of the PSBT Open Frame annual festival, which will be held in Delhi between September 13 and 19. Mamta Singh’s Women of Varanasi, another PSBT film at Open Frame, is also an account of the women of Vrindavan, who have featured in numerous news stories and documentaries.
“As one would expect in a documentary about the widows in Vrindavan, there are no sob stories in the film,” Kavita Bahl said. “I wanted to place my film in the present tense. How they are living their lives now is very important. Moreover, sadness is something very personal. I found the women of Vrindavan to be quite settled in their present tense.”
Bahl attributed her fascination for documenting women’s lives as the film’s prime motivation. Along with Nandan Saxena, Bahl has directed several award-winning documentaries, including Candles in the Wind in 2013, about women in Punjab whose farmer husbands have committed suicide. In I Cannot Give You My Forest (2015), the duo explores the lives of Orissa’s Kondh adivasis and their singular relationship with the forest. The film won the National Film Award for Agricultural Film.
Shot over two years, Krishna’s Waiting Room packs in interviews with the widows, lawyers and Sulabh International founder Bindeshwar Pathak. “Vrindavan is not new to me as my grandparents used to stay there,” Bahl said. “During my childhood, I used to come across the women in white and have wondered where they used to come from and why they always stood in the corners. While there have been other films on these women, I wanted to show their state.”
Through the stories of Manu Ghosh, Aarti and Rataniya, the film provides a tour of the various ashrams in the city. The women’s journeys are skilfully interwoven with Bahl’s introspective voiceover. “We would be treating these women like objects if I don’t reveal myself,” Bahl explained. “As an audience, I would like to know who is talking, who is taking these shots and who is leading the camera because the film is from a perspective. And as a filmmaker I am taking you on a journey, so shouldn’t you get used to me as well?”
A few minutes into the documentary, Bahl mentions that she was first ignored by these women when she walked in with a camera. What changed?
“Basically, my presence,” she said. “Initially they thought that I was going to sell their pictures and make money. But once I started talking to them, they realised that somebody was willing to listen to their stories. They are usually treated like objects by photographers who click their pictures on days of Holi and Janmashtami. Without talking to anyone, people click pictures. This is what makes them lose interest in anybody with a camera.”
Manu Ghosh’s return proves that many of the women do not exist in a social vacuum, Bahl pointed out. “There is a home and there is a family. Once you start talking to somebody about their family, they will obviously talk about their children and parents. So I always noticed that she was still very fond of her son. So I just asked her if she would like to visit them and she agreed. She hadn’t visited them in so many years so she thought it would be a good idea.”
But nothing stops Manu Ghosh from going back to Vrindavan. As she bids her goodbyes to her son and grandson, Benu Ghosh bemoans, “Radha Rani has snatched my mother from me.”