Chokher Bāli: Unleashing Forbidden Passions
Ghosh makes a remarkable departure in his own reinterpretation of the novel in the recent film version of Chokher Bali.
(Pictures used in this article are movie stills of Chokher Bali)
Subtitled a ‘A Passion Play’, Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bāli based on the Tagore novel of the same title, seeks to portray the natural yet socially forbidden desires of a widow, ironically called Binodini, a name that often recurs in Vaishnav Kirtan, connoting ‘sensuous’ and ‘pleasure-loving’.
Binodini refuses to die a virgin and hence she moves from Mahendra to Bihari seeking consummation of her sexual desires. In the process, Binodini comes across as promiscuous, impudent, and manipulative.
In this way, Tagore defamiliarizes the image of a widow who is traditionally supposed to submit herself unquestioningly to the dictates of a patriarchal society, one which has also feared female sexuality and felt the need to control it by every possible means.
Western Feminism as academics understands it today was yet to take shape when Tagore was writing, so his ideas on the subject are unique to him. But Ghosh’s film, located within modern feminist discourses, is much more iconoclastic.
Means of controlling female sexuality vis-à-vis Binodini
The age-old ritual of Sati as well as widow remarriage is, at one level, means of controlling the sexuality of a widow which becomes suspect in the absence of a controlling husband. Prem Chowdhury points out the close parallel between two words (both commonly used as terms of abuse) — rand and randi, meaning ‘a window’ and ‘a prostitute’ respectively.
A popular folk song in Haryana goes like: Kachhi imli gadrai savanme / rand lugai mustai phagun me, meaning: ‘A young innocent girl matures in rainy season /A widow frolics in early spring’. Several other folk songs are also replete with images of and references to the unbridled and therefore, menacing sexuality of the widow. This profound distrust for the widow stems from the deep-seated fear for her autonomy:
As a widow she was autonomous, and in a position to make her own decision of her sexual life, just like a prostitute. It was therefore considered only a small step from the position of a rand to that of randi…(Chowdhury n. pag.)
In fact, a widow is generally associated with the ghost of an unappeased woman who seduces good looking young men. The myth of the tremendous sexual prowess renders her threatening and leads to the curbing of her freedom to resist such stereotyping.
One easy means of controlling the sexuality of a widow was to force her into performing Sati or to put her under the control of a male authority through remarriage. Although the legalization of widow remarriage is still celebrated as revolutionary, it was another patriarchal scheme of disempowering the sexually powerful woman.
Ashis Nandy observes that the rise in the popularity of Sati in Bengal owed to a gradual bifurcation of the Chāndi image, the personification of the principles of adyashakti (original or basic power) and prakriti (the ultimate principle of nature and activity).
It is believed that due to frequent natural calamities, and the new colonial culture which repeatedly quashed the older assumption of living, the need for a new psychological balance originated in which the aggressive aspect of cosmic motherhood would be better recognized. Consequently emerged two goddesses: Durga, the destroyer of the demon as well as the giver of food and nurture; and Kali, the unpredictable, retaliatory mother, eager to betray and prone to aggression.
It was this new psychological environment which mothered the folk theory of Sati that the husband’s death was due to the wife’s poor ritual performance and the wife brought about the death of the man under her protection by her weak ritual potency and by deliberately not using or failing to maintain her latent womanly ability to manipulate natural events and fate. (9).
This folk theory of Sati was internalized by the widows, or for that matter, women in general. Even when Sati was officially abolished, the alternative available to widows who chose to remain single was miserable. They had no economic freedom; there were taboos on their attendance at social occasions, and ruthless constraint on food (the prescribed bland diet ensured weakening of sexual urges) and dress (a taboo on embellishment reduced sexual vulnerability).
However, in most cases, widows were not forced into these norms; rather, they spontaneously accepted these for they almost believed that they were responsible for their husbands’ death. They believed that without authoritarian control of the husband, they would stray from the path of virtue, for they were naturally promiscuous.
Pro-Sati literature repetitively reinforces the frivolity of women, their thoughtless submission to passion, irrationality, and lack of rectitude. In other words, pro-Sati literature carefully constructed women as fickle and therefore in severe need of control.
Women have been remarkably interpellated in this patriarchal discourse of innate female promiscuity. Drawing inspiration from Kate Millet, Kathleen Barry notes:
Women have been led to believe for so long that they have an uncontrolled sexuality, which victimizes men and makes females innately promiscuous – a myth that we must believe at the same time that we believe all women are frigid. These myths are steeped in male concepts of sexuality. Basic to male sexuality is an association between their sexual organs and powers…. Men still hold on to an irrational fear that women have some mysterious power to subdue their sexuality. This has led them to two simultaneous and contradictory presumptions about women. Not only do they believe out of fear that women are innately promiscuous, but to immobilize the promiscuity they describe the same women as innocent virgins, making the women something harmless in the mind of the male. …. We are constantly traded between two sets of images: one of our raging sexuality and the other of our sweet, pure virginity. And neither apply, our mistake has been to accept and believe their definition of us thereby distrusting ourselves. (N. pag.)
In Chokher Bāli, Tagore sets out to deconstruct the received notions of the widow; but he makes an unfortunate compromise in the end to cater to the demand of the publisher who did not have the nerve to leave Binodini unrepentant.
However, Ghosh makes a remarkable departure in his own reinterpretation of the novel in the recent film version. Tagore was much too ahead of his age in his conception of Binodini, the young widow, who is majestically rebellious in the sense that she does not distrust herself. She refuses to conform to the norms a widow is forced to adhere to. Apparently, she is a dutiful widow: she wears a white sari; she lives on a diet of sunned rice and ghee. But deep within, she is subversive.
The sexual vulnerability of the widow is recognized (particularly in the scene where the white doctor assumes that Binodini has come for an abortion whereas she has actually cut her finger). Patriarchal discourses on female sexuality are acerbically challenged every time Binodini makes sarcastic digs at Mahendra during moments of physical intimacy that unmask the hypocritical patriarch who abruptly refrains from intercourse, much to her sadistic amusement.
One interesting instance is where Mahendra recoils with fear when Binodini reminds him of her husband dying of some splenetic disease. Binodini sardonically reprimands him: ‘Aren’t you a doctor?’ Ghosh almost literally calls into question Mahendra’s internalized castration fear and distrust for the widow.
Binodini is constantly pitted against women (not just men) conditioned to believe in their fickleness. She continues to take tuitions in English from a Christian sister recanting the contemporary belief that the wife’s exposure to western education is fatal for the husband. Ashalata is shocked to find her speaking English, and insipidly relates her widowhood to her being educated.
Again, Binodini convinces Rajlakshmi into drinking tea, which a widow is forbidden to have. She strongly protests when both Rajlakshmi and Annapurna insist on hiding the tea-set as Bihari suddenly arrives.
A similar protest is heard when Ashalata asks her to don some jewels secretly. Infuriated, Binodini asks: ‘Why should I wear ornaments secretly? Would I be defiled if I touch them?’
Binodini, unlike Ashalata or Rajlakshmi, is not subservient to the patriarchal gaze: she is no hypocrite and therefore, does not want to do anything unbecoming a widow behind closed doors. At one point in the film she tells Mahendra rather fervidly: ‘I hate being diplomatic ….’ Therefore, she articulates her sexual desires in no ambiguous terms.
She is consequently dubbed a witch by Rajlakshmi when she discovers her liaison with Mahendra. Binodini retaliates sarcastically: ‘It is the greed of the body that is only to be blamed; there is no sin in failing to resist gustatory greed, isn’t it?’ Here Binodini refers to Rajlakshmi’s growing addiction to tea, which a widow must abstain from. What is remarkable is that Binodini equates physical desire to craving for forbidden food, underlining the naturalness of the former.
Binodini completely upsets the moral paradigm in which Ashalata or Rajlakshmi were so far comfortably contained. It is in this sense that she is different, a rebel in true sense of the term.
Ghosh, therefore, felt the need to modify Tagore’s ending. Ghosh’s Binodini does not repent as against Tagore’s Binodini who leaves for Kashi apologizing to Mahendra and Ashalata, thereby eliminating the anxiety for the masterless widow. Ghosh’s Binodini is not punished. Significantly enough, she does not even remarry when Bihari relents to accept her as wife. Perhaps she does not want to be rescued by a man; she leaves behind the narrow boundaries of the home to embrace the larger politics of the nation.
Reversing the Gaze?
With Binodini as protagonist, Rituparno Ghosh has been partially successful in reversing the sexual politics of classical cinema by transforming both the male characters Mahendra and Bihari into objects of a desiring gaze.
In cinema, traditionally, women have been objectified as spectacles, and denied both subjectivity and desiring gaze of their own. In Chokher Bāli, however, the look of the camera interpellates the audience in its gaze at the male body, thus hailing it into a feminine/ queer male subject position.
Notably, Binodini is provided with a pair of binoculars signifying that she is ostensibly invested with subjectivity and the power of controlling the gaze. However, there are very few shots where an intra-diegetic gaze involving Binodini and Mahendra/Bihari in which Binodini is given the subjective point-of-view is at work.
We may note the following shots:
i) Binodini looks through the binoculars as Mahendra and Ashalata close the bedroom door and the light inside goes off.
ii) Binodini desirously gazes at Bihari as the latter undresses and plunges into the pond to pluck lotus for Ashalata; she even praises his sculpted body much to the envy of Mahendra who later reproofs Bihari for unabashedly showing off his physique.
iii) Binodini (as well as Ashalata) gazes at Mahendra as he helps the servants clean the slippery backyard.
iv) Binodini looks around through the binoculars from the deck of the houseboat and within the panorama of her vision are captured nearly naked muscular wrestlers performing their daily round of physical exercise.
Established through point of view shots from the perspective of Binodini, in the above-mentioned scenes, the view of the spectator and the view of the female character/s on-screen are fused. Thus, here the men are provided for the projection of heterosexual female/queer male erotic gaze.
There are several shots in which the camera almost lovingly films the male body; in scenes of physical intimacy involving Mahendra and Ashalata or Binodini, it is Mahendra’s body that is exposed rather than those of the female characters. The gaze of the spectator and that of the camera are fused in all these shots thereby transforming the male body as spectacle.
In this sense, the film makes an attempt ‘to reverse the relation between the female body and sexuality which is established and reestablished by the classical cinema’s localization of the woman’s spectacle’ (Mulvey n.pag).
However, Binodini too functions as an erotic spectacle particularly in the scene where Binodini demonstrates to Ashalata how to wear a blouse. Here is an example of intra-diegatic gaze: a subjective point of view shot from the perspective of Ashalata who gazes at Binodini, her eyes expressing amazement as well as admiration. Here the gaze of the spectator and that of Ashalata fuse, turning Binodini into an object of erotic desire.
In the following scene, Ashalata, in a playful mood, bedecks Binodini with jewels and sends a letters to both Mahendra and Bihari promising them to show something.
This particular scene may be interpreted as an ironic reference to traditional cinema that has rendered women as passive viewers, looking at the onscreen female spectacle from the subject position of the desiring male, or identifying with the female character in a narcissistic way and enjoying the gratification and masochism that stem from being looked at.
This particular scene is a conscious enactment of this tradition within the diegesis, where the male characters in the diegesis are invited to gaze at another female character.
The scene ends with complete frustration of Ashalata’s expectation of seeing the two men excited and astonished: while Bihari mildly appreciates Binodini, Mahendra reprimands Ashalata’s childishness. The little show organized by Ashalata in which she parades Binodini as the traditional ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, (to use a term from Mulvey) apparently fails. Yet in the process, Binodini does become a scopophilic object for both Mahendra and the heterosexual male/queer female spectator.
As identified by Laura Mulvey, two forms of scopophilia − voyeurism and fetishism − are recognized as well as deconstructed in Chokher Bāli.
Incidentally, here, we may note how the centrality of the pond in which widows condemned of transgressing the moral code, drown themselves, is established at the very outset: the corpse of a widow is seen floating in the middle of the pond; choric characters inform that she suffers such a predicament for having given shelter to a freedom fighter. This particular pond is the site of punishment for the transgressors.
Binodini too comes to the pond to commit suicide but fails. Because she goes back, the function of this scene is rendered remarkably subversive; the traditional belief that a widow unafraid of asserting her sexual cravings is ‘the bearer of guilt’ is dismantled.
Mulvey says that fetishism leads to the over-valuation of the female image, as typified in the cult of the female star. The very decision of casting the eminently beautiful Aishwarya Rai in the lead role implies the intention of attracting a heterosexual male/queer female audience. (Rai had replaced a comparatively plain-looking and a non-star Nandita Das. This factor, nonetheless, is external to the narrative, yet an important point to be taken into consideration).
However, within the diegesis Rai alias Binodini, though functions as a spectacle for the heterosexual male/queer female viewers, she has been attributed some agency. Therefore, when she is accused of immoral wantonness, she proudly walks out of the house. And significantly enough, she walks out on Bihari in the end and frees herself from the control of the patriarch.
In mainstream cinema, a woman accused of wantonness is either devalued for her sins and either punished or saved. Chokher Bāli is different simply because it caters to none of these conventional resolutions, and, it certainly raises some interesting questions as regards to the act of viewing as gendered.
Taking into consideration the structure of the film as a whole, in terms of both its traditional and dissident elements, we may conclude that Chokher Bāli does open up new avenues of exploring the possibilities of the female gaze in Indian cinema.
Barry, Katherine. ‘The Institution and Psychology of Rape’ (1971). Web. 14 March 2010.
Chowdhury, Prem. ‘Sexuality, Unchastity and Fertility: Economy of Production and Reproduction in Colonial Haryana’. Widows in India: Social Neglect and Public Action (2007). Ed. Martha Alter Clen. N. pag. Web.
Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. (1975). N. pag. Web. 18 March 2010.
Nandy, Asish. ‘Sati: A Nineteenth Century Tale of Woman, Violence and Protest’. At the Edge of Psychology: Essays in Politics and Culture (1980). Exiled at Home. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988. 1-33. Print.
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