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Playing Passion Over Penance – Re-viewing Chokher Bali (1902-2002)

November 10, 2012 | By

In the film, observed some critics, ‘one misses the dignity and self respect’ which went into the making of Binodini in the novel.

‘Chokher Bali came as a sudden intervention…. not only in the way of my own literary journey, but in the entire stretch of Bengali literature as well’, maintained Rabindranath Tagore in introducing his first ever ‘long story’ (novel), published serially in Nabaparjay Bangadarshan during 1901-1902.[1] The novel, subject to a strident controversy, was censured by contemporary critics on grounds of ‘vulgarity’, for foregrounding the sexual transgressions of an upper caste, Hindu widow. Strong moral indictments came from contemporary critics like Suresh Chandra Samajpati who reprimanded ‘the utter disregard for literary ethics’ that ‘eclipsed the novel’ (Sahitya, February-March,1902) while Buddhadeb Bose was disappointed with ‘the floppy and patchy finishing’ of an otherwise bold and insightful exploration (Kabita, June-July, 1940).

A century after the writing of the novel, the film, directed by Rituparno Ghosh, sought to recapture the imagination of the Bengali audience creating a ‘gorgeous chamber piece suffused with sensuality and its denial’. Binodini, the sexual widow, returned—this time, on the silver screen.

With Binodini, it has been often argued, Tagore inaugurated a new era of female characterization in Bengali literature though it was not for the first time that the desirous widow who lay latent in Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar’s writings was fleshed out in contemporary Bengali fiction. In the universe of literary imagination, the widow made a long journey, from pulps to scandal literatures, from farces to classics—from Bankim’s Rohini to Sarat Chandra’s Kiranmoyee.

In Bishabriksha (1873) Bankim Chandra allowed Kundanandini to be remarried and introduced the licentious Heera, the widowed maid, who wrecked the family and the moral order by her intrigues. Kunda killed herself. Rohini, another transgressive widow, was killed by the man she loved in Krishnakanter Will (1878). In Sarat Chandra’s Charitraheen (1917), Kiranmoyee fought a battle with herself in pursuit of her desires and her anarchy was resolved only through her self-defeat and a retreat into madness. All these widows, representing unsettling threats to conjugality, family and the social order, had to be removed from the social canvas, by death or banishment.

Writing under the shadow of Rohini’s ‘unjustified’ murder, Tagore deliberately averted the occasion of planting ‘another poison tree’ in Bangadarshan. Tagore’s Binodini, an educated and attractive widow, was placed within the context of the newly emerging urban family of early twentieth century Bengal. Capable of both passion and intrigue, she disrupted the settled, seemingly harmonious, conjugal and filial relationships. She shrewdly played with Mahendra, displacing the naïve Asha, but herself longed for Behari, Mahedra’s friend. But, unlike the lecherous Shyamasundari, the widowed sister-in-law of Kumudini, in Jogajog (1929) and the fastidious and jealous widowed Mejorani, the sister-in-law of Bimala, in Ghare Baire (1916), Binodini was self-aware even as she was disruptive and dignified both in surrender and rejection. Deriving its strength from an elaboration of inter-personal relationships—sexual, marital, familial, and friendships, Chokher Bali investigated intricacies of marriage, holding in tension the choice between the irrevocable marital bond and the legitimacy of desire.

However, Rituparno was not entirely happy with Tagore’s characterisation of Binodini, as he wrote while making the film, ‘Tagore seemed to have imposed widowhood on Binodini as a literary devise either to increase the commercial value of the novel or to heighten her sexual attraction for readers’. Rituparno surmised,

[Tagore] himself did not directly encounter the harsh realities of widowhood. The widow’s struggle was not only against her sexual desires. The daily routine of rituals and deprivations could reduce an ordinary woman into becoming helpless, mean and selfish…. Realistically perhaps, it might have been natural for a destitute widow, coming from abject poverty to seek, first of all, sexual pleasures in Mahendra’s arms. But then, Chokher Bali’s author would have been someone else, not Rabindranath.[2]

In ‘deconstructing’ the classic, Rituparno, however, neither deprives his film of its ‘commercial value’ nor does he fail to enhance its ‘sexual attraction’. He is rather keen to produce a ‘passion play’, based on the sexual forays of a young Hindu widow.[3] It portrays Binodini as a ‘desiring subject’, the pivot of a ‘forbidden’ attraction, sweeping others with her licentious desires. Unsurprisingly, Rituparno’s attempt to recreate the ‘psychological’ novel invited flak from critics for compromising on both artistic and ethical scores. In the film, observed some critics, ‘one misses the dignity and self respect’ which went into the making of Binodini in the novel. Instead Rituparno made Binodini virtually a ‘nymphomaniac’.[4]

In the film, Binodini (Aishwarya Rai) is engaged in wild trysts with Mahendra (Prosenjit Chatterjee), sometimes within the closed enclosure of a phaeton, and desperately yearns for sexual gratification of her love for Behari (Tota Raychoudhuri). The young widow displays herself shamelessly in a red jacket and frolics in gold jewellery. She sings English songs while making tea for herself and Rajlakshmi (Lily Chakrabarti), the elderly widowed matriarch of the house. And the one scene that excites much controversy and some disgust is the depiction of an unexpected onset of menstruation of Binodini when she is engaged in the kitchen during Ambubachi. Is this a pollution of the ritual purity of abstentious widowhood? Is it a depiction of the other elderly widows’ discomfort with sexuality? Or does it symbolize the sexual fecundity of the widow whose menstruating period coincides with that of the mother earth? The young widow is not, as she is supposed to be, ‘sexually dead’.

chokher bali 5

Woven around this tussle between sexual desire and sexual death, the film is located firmly within a symbolized domain of ceremonies and rituals that marks and also resolves the tension between two different experiences of upper caste women’s lives—wifehood and widowhood.[5] Rituparno elaborately draws a visual binary between Asha’s (Raima Sen) celebratory wifehood and the barren widowhood of Binodini, situating them in two distinctive colour zones, signifying their respective sexual-cultural locations. In this symbolic structure of ‘colours’, laid down by the brahminic patriarchal culture, the wife is assigned the vibrant ‘red’, embodying life, fertility and sexuality, in opposition to the ‘white’, underlining the non-bride status of the widow and her continued association with renunciation, desexualisation and death. Thus Asha, the only wife in a gallery of widows, celebrates the Bijaya Dashami, the immersion festival of goddess Durga, by washing the smeared vermillion from her face under Binodini’s jealous and silent gaze, only to be broken by the announcement of the onset of the following lunar cycle, Ekadasi—the only ritual reserved for the widow, enjoining her to fasting, may be without a drop of water. While exercises in celibacy involve the process of reigning in every possible desire, Binodini rebels against such proscriptions and remains unapologetic about her ‘lapses’. Exuding sensuality in her gestures and glances, her every action reflects non-conformity and seduction, subverting her prescribed socio-sexual status. Her fascination for the colour red, be it a red jacket or a red shawl, is used as a motif of her sinful passion. More symbolic is Binodini’s abundant hair, which invokes erotic desire and even wantonness, in contrast to the tied or shorn heads of other widows. But here, Rituparno can not be charged of deviating from Tagore as the latter himself provided both these clues in his novel. Tagore allowed Binodini to keep her hair open and to wrap a red shawl when she feigned to be in deep sleep as Mahendra stealthily entered the room to capture her photograph.

chokher bali 7To reinforce the demarcation between pleasure and penance, the film expectedly encroaches upon the most intimate private, where the licit love of the wife collides and clashes with the illicit sexuality of the widow. As Asha rejoices in her anniversary night with Mahendra the camera rolls on to focus sharply on Binodini’s bare and unadorned hands, caressing her own body, pining for ‘pleasures of the flesh’. The entire scene foregrounds her unsatisfied sexuality as the background score wails, ‘Madhava Milana Tare Amar Radha’, drawing her closer to the archetypal symbol of deviant love, ‘Radha’. In the film, as in the novel, Binodini’s deviance reverberates in the transgressive love of Radha, the icon of medieval romance, who immortalized her parakiya prem (love outside marriage) with Krishna. Binodini was represented as ‘the ageless, timeless, the eternal cowherd maiden’, ‘trudging through the ages in quest of her lover…, bursting with the throb of desire’.[6] In the film, too, Binodini longs for the ‘lecherous Krishna’ (Lampat Kalia) to rescue her from the thrall of enforced asceticism.

Indeed, what emerges as the dominant strain in the narrative is the sanction and rejection of ‘pleasures of the flesh’. Hence, the conjugal rapture of Asha with her husband, Mahendra, once so obsessed with the experimentation of the nitty-gritty of companionate conjugality, by refashioning his wife into a new mould, with new attire and with a new rhetoric of modernity is offset by the blatant violation of marital commitment as he is drawn towards Binodini. Even though Rituparno moves far beyond the narrative text in perfecting his ‘passion play’, he can not be charged of tampering historical facts when he shows the English doctor suspecting Binodini, who arrived at his doorstep with Mahendra at an odd hour of night, to be illegitimately pregnant! In colonial Bengal, doctors could not blamed for mistaking a minor injury of a wounded finger for a case of clandestine abortion as the latter had been fairly common among upper caste widows.

Chokher Bali marks a sharp break in the portrayal of a Bengali Hindu widow and this perhaps contributed to the controversy over the film. At the same time, the controversy was quite muted. Much greater violence attended the public debate erupted over Deepa Mehta’s attempt to film Water in 2000 (finally released in 2005). Water was a depiction of the lives of Hindu widows of early twentieth century Benares and their ‘transgressive’ sexual practices that fell foul of neo-Hindutva ideologues. Agitators went on a rampage and forced Mehta to stop the shooting. Mehta was accused of defaming the city of virtue, of misrepresenting virtuous Hindu widows by portraying them as prostitutes.[7]

But no such controversy overshadowed Prem Rog (1982), one of Raj Kapoor’s less publicized films, which delved into the issues of enforced widowhood, tonsure and sexual abuse of widows. Manorama, in Prem Rog, was a young, high caste woman who became a widow after a few months of her marriage. Raped by her brother in-law, she came back to her parental home, where she was forced to observe rigorous asceticism, adhering to rigid sartorial and dietary restrictions. Raj Kapoor finally allowed his widowed heroine to remarry, running counter to mainstream cine sentiment. Running in empty houses, the film was rejected by the Indian audience.

No big round of applause followed the release of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Ek Chadar Maili Si (1986), a retelling of the traditional customary rite of widow remarriage or Chadar (levirate), prevalent in the agrarian economy of Punjab-Haryana. The film narrated the tale of Rano, a widow with two grown-up children, who was forced to marry Mangal, her young brother-in-law, acquiescing to the dictates of the family and the Panchayat. While both Rano and Mangal yielded to the ‘social consent’ of the joint patriarchal family, the film ended with a note of reconciliation, resolving the tension inherent in the politics of the peasant society, where in ‘allowing’ sexual cohabitation and remarriage of a widow, the family rejected the question of her ‘choice’ to acquire the command over her property and her labour.

Widows on the canvas of Bengali cinema are mostly the pristine and the pitiable, past the age of ‘sexual promiscuities’. In Pather Panchali (1955) Satyajit Ray immortalized the pathetic Indir Thakrun and presented the vulnerable but self-assertive Sarbajaya in Aparajito (1956). Tapan Sinha’s Nirjan Saikate (1963) offered four widows from an orthodox joint family of Calcutta at a moment of brief respite from their gruelling regimen of austerities as they set out for a pilgrimage in Puri to discover a new shore, a new life.

With a few exceptions, the tinsel industry has upheld the image of the pure and ascetic widow. Does Chokher Bali break this rule, deviate from this tested ideal? Binodini offers a powerful voice for female agency. She is able to ‘speak’ in a radical language, challenging the established norms of female behaviour, and goes far in questioning Rajlakshmi’s ascetic double-standards. The ordinariness of the situation and the every-day settings in which she is placed heightens the potency of her ‘voice’ and highlights the hypocrisy of the social judgment to which she is subject. She is allowed to rebel against and flout social sanctions in an unprecedented manner, but the threat she poses to the brahminic moral order is also resolvable. In Tagore, her ‘transgression’ itself perhaps affords a useful means of playing out the pre-determined irresolution. Writing in the heyday of cultural nationalism, amidst implacable resistance against gender reforms within the Hindu society, Tagore might have hurried towards a ‘disappointing’ end of his novel. Has Rituparno, making the film under the shadow of ‘Water’ controversy, equally compelled to seek a solution other than her sexual gratification? Or would such a resolution of Binodini’s sexuality be too drastic a reinterpretation of Tagore’s novel?

In Chokher Bali, the widow provides a discursive site of cinematic exhibition, which remains an exercise to accommodate deviance within a new code of sexual morality. In one of its opening scenes, reacting to the sudden death of Swami Vivekananda, whose call to sexual abstinence gave brahmacharya a new dimension in Swadeshi Bengal, Mahendra questions sarcastically, ‘How’s that Behari? End of celibacy?’ As the film progresses, the contrast between celibacy and sexual passion encompasses not only the opposition between Binodini and Asha, but also Behari and Mahendra. Binodini challenges Behari’s celibacy thus, ‘There is no kudos in taking on the guise of Vivekananda.’ She snaps back, ‘A man who can refuse a young unprotected woman is rather considered a eunuch.’ Celibacy troubles Behari’s ideology. Can it solve the widow’s dilemma?

This social question of the widow’s disruptive sexuality is left unanswered in the novel, which ended with an abrupt exit by Binodini from the familial domain. What happened to Binodini, where did she go —are questions not answered by Tagore. Binodini’s unfinished journey, however, was completed in diverse ways by scores of other women in Tagore’s novels and short stories, by Mrinal in Streer Patra, Kalyani in Aparichita, Damini in Chaturanga and Kumudini in Jogajog. In all of these, Tagore explored different resolutions to the women’s question. Drawing on Tagore’s later writings to give Binodini a future, Rituparno crafts a collage of Tagore heroines to provide his film a ‘credible resolution’. Thus, Rituparno’s Binodini chooses self-banishment like Mrinal, withdraws from sexual engagement like Kumudini (and Kumu’s end also reminds us of the fate of Asha in the film) and opts for national service like Kalyani.

Since the late nineteenth century elite discourses were shot with an obsessive preoccupation with nationalism, it is a somewhat facile resolution to social dilemma, finding its aesthetic fulfilment in the iconic representation of the nation as mother. In the film, in a magic moment of self-realisation, Binodini decides to join the nationalist movement. Hence, ‘Jara sukher lagi chahe prem’, a love song from Tagore’s musical drama, Mayar Khela, mingles and merges with the inspiring patriotic score, ‘Aji bangladesher hriday hote’, imbued with the ethos of proto-nationalism. The shift is evident from the ‘private-domestic’ to the ‘public-political’, from self-desire to self-abnegation, from love for one’s self to sacrifice of oneself for the nation. The emotional tension between the widow’s reciprocated love for Behari and the social sanction against widow-remarriage is resolved by placing on the widow herself the onus of deciding against the consummation of their passions. A fulfilment of Binodini’s love is not the choice of the moment as the hegemonic narrative of nationalism firmly locates the ‘possible Hindu nation’ in the politics of women’s monogamy.[8] Thus Asha, demonstrating the life-long constancy of a Hindu wife, returns pregnant to her husband, even though Mahendra remains unredeemed by any virtue whatsoever. Binodini’s devotion to Behari, however, remains unflinching and her transcendental feminine strength transforms her from an assertive temptress to a sacrificing celibate. The end comes with an idyllic relief, with a re-stabilisation of the conjugal order, banishing forever the disruptive widow. As the theatre is filled with pounding beats of nationalist hymns does the ‘passion play’ lose colour, giving way to a ‘respectable’ solution?


  1. Tagore, Rabindranath, ‘Chokher Bali’, Rabindra Rachanabali, 8, Centenary Collection, Calcutta, West Bengal Government, 1961.
  2. Ghosh, Rituparno, ‘Amar Binodini’, Anandabazar Patrika, 11 May 2003.
  3. Roy, Bishwajit, ‘Younatar Rajneeti’, Anandabazar Patrika, 9 November 2003.
  4. Sen, Ashoke and Subhendu Das Munshi, ‘Tagore Made Easy’, The Statesman, 16 November 2003.
  5. See Chakravarti, Uma, ‘Gender, Caste and Labour: The Ideological and Material Structure of Widowhood’, Martha Alter Chen, ed., Widows in India, Social Neglect and Public Action, New Delhi, Sage Publications, 1998, pp 75 – 76.
  6. Translation by Sogani, Rajul, The Hindu Widow in Indian Literature, New Delhi, Oxford, 2002, P 68.
  7. Chakraborty, Aishika, ‘Virtue in Varanasi’, The Statesman, 23 June 2000.
  8. See Sarkar, Tanika, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism, New Delhi, Permanent Black, 2000.
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Aishika Chakraborty is Associate Professor in History in Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College. Her research interests include Gender History and Dance Studies.
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