Ray, in his characteristic swagger, put it down to the puerile nature of his native Bengali audience and the ‘backward, stupid and trashy’ quality of contemporaneous work in the Bengali film industry.
India’s most famous filmmaker Satyajit Ray was, in an interview by Cineaste1, confronted with a critical inquiry as to why he had not taken the aesthetic and narrative risks that his European contemporaries Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini had attempted in their works.
Ray, in his characteristic swagger, put it down to the puerile nature of his native Bengali audience and the ‘backward, stupid and trashy’ quality of contemporaneous work in the Bengali film industry. He criticized Bergman for being ‘simple’ although ‘austere and rigorous’ and accused Fellini of recycling ‘bravura’ that kept attracting his audience.
Both Bergman and Fellini have been accused, time and again, of being indulgent and repetitive in their conceptualizations and technique. One aspect though that renders the oeuvre of these auteurs remarkable is the manner in which their depicted women characters were multidimensional, fascinatingly deep and out-of-the-box in their actions and reactions.
The ability to flesh out this extraordinariness constituted an essential aspect of Bergman’s rigor and Fellini’s bravura. In contrast, women in Ray’s films despite their layers and complexities, have rarely stepped out of the rules and boundaries laid down both by their male partners and an ambiguous social conscience.
But to blame it on an uneducated and unsophisticated audience is unfair, for there was one auteur who was operating in Ray’s very backyard making film after film where women pushed the envelope in terms of dealing with their surroundings, their society, their lovers and their sexuality. This auteur, not surprisingly, is Ritwik Ghatak.
Metaphors and meta-boundaries
Let us start with a couple of narratives from Ghatak’s films:
Subarnarekha (The GoldenThread) opens with Sita and her doting brother Ishwar, uprooted from Bangladesh and forced to seek refuge in Calcutta during the partition of India. Ishwar takes under his wings another refugee, Abhiram.
Sita and Abhiram fall in love and decide to get married against Ishwar’s will. Sita abandons Ishwar just the way Bangladesh had abandoned him. The insanity in his eyes upon Sita’s act is a déjà vu of the madness of the partition times.
Nilkantha, the protagonist in Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason Debate and a Story), is one of Bengal’s brightest intellectuals whose struggle to come to terms with the partition has reduced him to an alcoholic.
Abandoned by his family, he wanders through the urban- and ruralscapes of Bengal with a motley group, one of whom is Bangabala, a refugee newly arrived from Bangladesh. Her sense of loss and listlessness mirrors that of both people in her situation as well as a land diced and quartered for political motives.
Ghatak who spent his childhood in East Bengal and his adulthood in West Bengal could never quite reconcile with its partition. The latter forms a leitmotif as his themes visit and revisit a wistful longing for an undivided land and what could have been. Land, for him, is a breathing, living and feeling entity.
The ups and downs in the relationships between the man and the woman in his films are an evolving metaphor for the relationship between the homeland and its uprooted with the woman being elevated to the metaphor of a sometimes magnanimous, sometimes cruel, but always powerful homeland.
The abandonment of Ishwar by Sita in Subarnarekha brings with it the same sense of betrayal and anger Ishwar, and in real life, Ghatak and a million refugees, felt when Bengal was torn asunder. Sita’s departure from Ishwar’s life sends his life spiraling into chaos and anarchy much like that of the partition refugees.
The metaphorical deployment of Bangabala is more overt. She has a spectral appearance that hides within itself a million stories of horror and suffering. She does not appreciate pedantic arguments that amount to little in front of turmoil and exoduses. Ghatak even shows her relationship with the rest of the cohort, all of whom are males, as ambiguous, dynamic and ever-changing.
Significantly, it is this portrayal of the female protagonist in Ghatak’s cinema that sets the stage for the woman finally breaking free of the set parameters of being a woman and transcending to assume other identities.
Let us now turn to two narratives from Satyajit Ray’s films.
Charulata is a young woman living in pre-Independence Bengal. She is married to Bhupati, a considerably older bourgeois Bhadralok who runs a press. She yearns for intellectual company, but is deprived of the same from her husband. On coming across Amal, her brother-in-law who belongs to her age group, and is well-versed in poetry and literature, she falls in love with him.
Incapable of coming to terms with this predicament, he abandons her and goes away. Her husband upon realizing her feelings also withdraws within himself. Her earlier loneliness, which was a product of her circumstances, is now replaced by a new loneliness that is ‘her’ doing.
The men remain unblemished and her only way ahead is to atone for her actions. Amitabha in Kapurush (The Coward), a successful screenplay writer suddenly comes across a former lover Karuna, whom he had abandoned at a time when she needed him the most, in order to get away from her dominating uncle. She is now married to a tea garden manager who is in love with her but drinks copiously to kill the ennui associated with his occupation.
Even now Amitabha asks her to run away with him but she turns down his offer, not without letting him know though that her existence still remains deplorable, thanks to the men who were, and are in her life.
Both films end by showing the male protagonists, Amal and Amitabha as cowards. They both also imply that in pre- as well as post-independent India, the fate and actions of women are essentially predetermined by a set of metaboundaries that have been set by a patriarchal society.
The women operate within these metaboundaries, striving for love, respect, approval as well as comfort. Very occasionally when in a corner, they try to push the boundaries further as in Kanchenjungha. Even so, their acts amount to what Gaston Bachelard would call “small Promethean disobediences”4. They cannot completely flout the metaboundaries.
They forever remain, sometimes opaque, sometimes translucent. But what determines the difference in the psychological mise-en-scène within which Ghatak and Ray place their women characters? The following section attempts to shed light on this question.
Performance, appearance and de-specification of gender
Through historical precedence a woman reifies the concept of a woman with the help of a series of stereotyped acts. When Judith Butler claims, ‘…gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather it is an identity tenuously constituted over time; an identity, instituted through a stylized repetition of acts’2, she is contesting the very existence of the concept of gender on the basis of historically performed roles in society wherein a woman can be identified by a set of acts she ‘performs’ or has been performing since times immemorial.
The woman in Ray’s cinema models her appearance onscreen on this perceived idea wherein she embodies a stereotypical coyness, an innate courage which never transcends to the explicit or the brazen and an impervious filter of rehearsed sobriety handed down by the Victorian British rulers to the Bengali middle class. Hence she “performs” or “acts” (sensu Judith Butler) and is predictable, ever shackled by the rules of society.
John Berger is even more penetrating when he splits the woman into two identities that reside within herself: one that surveys herself continually and the other that is being surveyed.
‘From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.’
And so there are endless allusions to how the woman must be conscious of her physical appearance at all times. In Ray’s Nayak, Manorama Bose shares the same coupe with an attractive male film star and is shown to be surreptitiously surveying herself in a mirror even though it is obvious that her situation will not result in her exchanging more than a couple of pleasantries with him.
Keya, out on a date with Siddhartha in Pratidwandi (The Adversary), takes pains to fish a compliment out of her scientifically tempered boyfriend. Their conversation is a vivid portrayal of the surveying that Berger talks about. Ray continually draws the audience’s attention to the woman’s clothes and accessories when he sketches Bimala (Ghare Baire), Kauna (Jana Aranya), Jaya (Aranyer Din Ratri) et al.
For Ray, being a woman is rather personal. She is an enactment of an illusion, one that is defined by a historical (and not natural) set of variables whereby a woman is a function of her tastes, her attire, her demeanor, her perceived talents like how well she can paint, sing, dance and cook and most importantly her society’s and her male partner’s approval.
As a communist, Ghatak saw tragedies and ruptures in human relationships as symptomatic of structural problems within the evolution of society and not merely narratives of individuals.
He analyzed personal tales invariably in the backdrop of socio-political events that were contemporary of his times. That was the reason he envisioned women not as individuals, but as a group which was not bound by gender, but by its oppression and suffering. In doing so he freed them from the obligation of performing in accordance with their gender.
This de-specification of gender was so remarkable that in certain sequences if we replace the male with the female: Anasuya with Bhrigu (Komal Gandhar) or Bangabala with Nachiketa (Jukti Takko aar Gappo), it does not in any way alter the mise-en-scène. The de-specification of gender may have a lot to do with Ghatak’s intimate association with the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Indian People’s Theatre Association.
The characters in Jukti Takko Gappo are a bunch of individuals who have slunk out of a society they no longer can identify with. Boundaries of any form, education, race or even gender no longer hold. These comrades have actually built their utopia among themselves!
I will conclude this section by comparing and contrasting two women created by Ghatak and Ray from the point of view of Berger’s philosophy. Arati in Ray’s Mahanagar and Nita in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara are both bread-earners for their respective families. Their independence is in the context of the hardship they face in their lives.
Arati’s sketch by Ray initially appears to defy Berger’s definition of a surveying woman. This is one of the rare occasions when Ray was stepping beyond his comfort zone. And yet the sub conscious works in strange ways.
Consider the scene where her Anglo-Indian colleague Edith gifts her a lipstick. She uses it and surveys herself in the mirror. The introduction of the lipstick does two things at once. For the first time in the film Ray is depicting the working woman as being different from the working man, and introducing props she uses to distinguish herself even from the stay-at-home-woman.
Second, the use of the lipstick is supposed to be a symbol of her assertion as an individual free from her extant social relationships. However it ends up making her a slave of a consumerist ideology that entails rendering women susceptible to, and surveyed by, the males in their working domain.
A lipstick adds nothing to femininity. Rather, it corroborates the fact that ‘the ideal spectator is always assumed to be male’ (Berger), an important reason why she removes the lipstick before coming home to the scrutiny of her husband and father-in-law.
Contrast this with Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara. She too is a working woman struggling to make ends meet in a refugee colony in the outskirts of Calcutta. She is modern in every sense of the word, and she has dreams, and an optimism that was in sync theoretically with a postcolonial India.
Ghatak does not need to stamp home the feeling of empowerment or liberation through a lipstick or accessories or any other consumerist trappings. And yet Ghatak was well aware of the ironic duality that constitutes the essence of being a woman.
In a brazen portrayal of a desiring, ever conscious of how she ‘appears’ in Gita, Ghatak peels off the veneer of sophistication with ferocious skill. The effect Gita has on the audience is very powerful, not just because she almost preys on her sister’s fiancé but because she does it with such unabashed boldness, something that is rarely portrayed onscreen to keep the comfort level of the primary male gazer undisturbed.
The seventies mark a watershed in the political history of the world. The implosion of the second world under the onslaught of their own misguided policies, as well as constant arm twisting by an imperialist first world, had begun.
The non-aligned third world started cozying up with the winning first world, and Ghatak’s socialist ideas were no longer in fashion. His demise in 1976 also sounded the death knell of a gender-neutral feminist line. The latter gave way to a consumerist-oriented ideology that presumed that increasing the spending power and creating and widening the market choices for women was akin to empowering and liberating them.
This monstrous ideology, which can be glimpsed sometimes inadvertently and sometimes cynically through the camera of Ray, exists to date. Perhaps with current world political events consisting of bottom-up anti-capitalist protest movements gaining momentum in one nation after another, Ghatak’s feminism too will regain its relevance in films of today.
I would like to thank Ramray Bhat for helpful insights on an earlier version of the manuscript.
1. Ray on Ray
2. Butler, Judith, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory, Theatre Journal, 40, 1988, 519-531.
3. Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, Penguin, London 1972.
4. Bachelard, Gaston, Fragments of a Poetics of Fire Dallas Inst Humanities and Culture, USA1990.
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