Suttee: Retelling the Myth
Analayzing Aparna Sen’s Bengali movie ‘Suttee’ and its protagonist, Uma, played by Shabana Azmi, and connecting the film to the history, tradition and Hindu myth of the Sati.
This article takes the film Suttee (in Bengali, directed by Aparna Sen in 1989) as its nucleus and making a liaison between history and films under the coverage of studying social history. The term, ‘Sati’ (not the Anglicized ‘Suttee’), reminds us about the myth of Sati (King Dakshya’s daughter) and her sacrifice, as a mark of protest against the insult done to her husband Shiva by her father. A pertinent question may be raised here, regarding the power of Shiva. Mythology presents Shiva as an omnipresent god, however he failed to save his wife. He travelled around the world with the dead body of Sati and wherever the pieces of her body fell, there arose a temple.
The original Sanskrit word ‘Sati’ (feminine) is derived from ‘Sat’ meaning goodness or virtue. However, in the social and cultural space the term ‘Sati’ has mostly denoted the practitioner and not the practice – ‘the virtuous woman’ who joins her husband in death.
The first memorial of a Sati is found at Eran, near Saugor in Madhya Pradesh where a brief inscription engraved on a pillar in AD 510. Being ‘Sati’ was originally a ‘Kshatriya’ custom. After 1000 A.D, History says that the practice of ‘Sati’ became very prominent in the ‘Brahmin’ class. With the coming of King Ballal Sen in the 12th Century in Bengal, ‘Sati’ was fervently practiced, the chief reason being saving the purity of the ‘Brahmin’ class.
Later, especially during the period 1680-1830, the practice of ‘Sati’ among the Brahmins of Bengal was increased due to the fact that the system of law prevailing then gave inheritance rights to widows (The ‘Dayabhaga’ law, which permitted even the childless widow to become an heir to her husband). This is how patriarchy was used to apply the ‘Sati’ myth for depriving the widow women from their economic right. ‘Suttee’ in its Anglicized spelling is the term coined by the British in India to denote the practice. The term carries with it associations of widowhood and victimization.
Aparna Sen’s film Suttee is set in the year 1828, and in the next year that is 1829, The Act of Prohibition of Sati was released. The film is the story of a mute rural Brahmin girl of the early 19th century Bengal. Director-writer Aparna Sen names her ‘Uma’ which takes us back to the mythological period to find out a connective link between mythology and its continuous inherent flow in the process of the formation of society in different ages. Uma (played by Shabana Azmi) lost her mother in early age and her maternal uncle, Gangacharan Chattopadhyay takes her responsibility. Uma is uprooted from her natural order and she becomes a burden to this family even after sharing many household duties. Uma’s position in the family may not have been a burden, if she would not have been a female. As the camera weaves another scene where the domesticated cow gives birth to a calf, the entire family praises the Lord’s grace because this calf will grow up to bring in lucrative profits for the family. This is where Sen allows the audience to connect the fact that a “human” female is considered less desirable, often baneful for the family.
Gender discrimination is also revealed in the film when Uma’s elder brother agrees for a second marriage, as is customary for a Kulin Brahmin  and also the bride’s family becomes a source of income for the groom’s family. The words are very vividly marked as he says his mother – “Bless me, I am going to bring a ‘dasi’ (meaning ‘slave’) for you”. The words followed by this is “Good luck, may your bride gift us with a male child each year”. We must notice the strange factor that while the speaker is a female herself, she demeans the fact of giving birth to a girl child. This is where patriarchy dominates the mindset of women as well and often their desires in an explicit way. Simone de Beauvoir opines that the source of gender hierarchy and sexual inequality is a patriarchal culture, as purveyed by ‘religion, traditions, language, tales, songs, movies’ , all of which help compose the way in which people understand and experience the world. These are the vehicles for myths created by men and constructed from their viewpoint, which are then mistaken for absolute truth.
As for Uma, is she cursed by herself? Her horoscope indicates her early widowhood. She is mute. Who will marry her and it is very difficult to wed the younger daughter before the elder one. The village priest -Madhab Bachaspati suggests that Uma can be married to a tree (like Banyan/Peeple because Hindu scriptures believe that these two are the form of the Lord himself and hence shall live forever) and it will help the family from all sides. Henceforth, Uma is married to the Banyan tree. Here the term ‘marriage’, is ironical because Uma is not really aware of marriage, but her first experience is not a pleasant one, we discover her screaming with pain when her forehead is rubbed on the hard and rough bark of the banyan tree, the bride groom. Although she doesn’t understand the phenomenon of ‘marriage’, Uma develops a friendly bond with the tree she hides her treasured items, bangles and fruits in the hollows of the old tree trunk. Uma continues to live, but life has its own laws and demands.
Uma is young and she was an instrument to pacify the lust of the local school master Nabin. Nabin is an escapist, his wife does not like to live in the village, and he uses this opportunity to use Uma, an extra facility being Uma is mute. The master beds her on a rainy day but Uma becomes traumatized when she discovers the discrepancy of Nabin’s attitude towards her. Just before bedding her, he was being soft with Uma, and once she has satisfied his lust, he forcefully drives her out of the house through the back door, so that he can portray himself as the same honored person, when his chess-mate knocks the door. But even after this she comes back to Nabin next time from the urge of her physical bodily needs.
Laura Mulvey’s revolutionary essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Screen, 1975) reminds us that how a “ ‘Woman’ is defined solely in terms of sexuality, as an object of desire , in relation to, or as a foil for, ‘Man’”. The film Suttee reflects this in two ways – firstly, when the school master does satisfy his lust, it is for the man’s sake and secondly when Uma herself is eager to have sex with him, being failed to do it with the tree reflecting the physical needs of a woman. But in both cases sexual desires are fanned with the expositions of female body parts supporting the Freudian concept ‘scopophilia’ or ‘the pleasure in looking’.
Uma soon becomes pregnant. Nobody asks Uma, there is no need of it. To save the family prestige Uma’s aunt goes to a witch doctor to take medicine for abortion of Uma’s unwanted pregnancy. The witch doctor declares the credibility of her medicine as it is testified many times. The woman once again tears the veil of the society saying that she has never seen a courageous man who makes himself responsible instead of ‘the other’. Is it not a challenge to the Patriarchal order? Once again Uma becomes uprooted from her family! She was not allowed to stay with others and was sent to the cowshed for shelter. Uma alone faces another stormy night when the shed is broken. She knocks her aunt’s door but it doesn’t open and she goes back to her mute husband, takes refuge in the branches of the Banyan tree.
The villagers, on the next morning, are surprised only to find her dead lying beside the main branch (it is also broken and resembles the death of Uma’s tree-husband) and surprisingly Uma’s forehead is adorned with blood representing vermillion. The director uses here vermillion to prove Uma’s chastity since vermillion is considered as the holy symbol of a Hindu married woman. Uma is finally detached from life and thereby she has to earn her freedom from the constant burden of herself and the horrible society and its ‘virtuous’ beliefs and rituals. The old priest cannot face this reality and his facial expression reflects the same. Somewhere and somehow he finds himself responsible for the death because of his predictions. Thus ‘Sati’ the mythological concept turned to a historical fact ‘Suttee’. These two terms ultimately dare to dictate woman’s fate and the director Aparna Sen has rightly chosen this term to reveal the patriarchal hypocrisy in this film.
 (Sarla Khosla, Gupta Civilization, Intellectual Publishing House, New Delhi , 1982 p 23)
 ‘Kshatriya’ and ‘Brahmin’ are two of the four classes in a Hindu society (the other two being ‘Vaishya’ and ‘Shudra’. Traditionally, the ‘Kshatriya’ constituted the ruling and military elite viz. the kings. Their role was that of protector and providing governance. The ‘Brahmin’ traditionally got engaged in spiritual practices and in religious rituals in temples.
Even within the ‘Brahmin’ there exists a caste hierarchy of being a ‘high-born’ Brahmin as opposed to someone who is a ‘low-born’. ‘Kulin Brahmins’ are Brahmins of highest order within the Bengali Brahmins.
Editor’s Note: The film’s English subtitle reads Suttee while the poster of the same is Sati. There is no way to resolve this confusion and hence we have kept the film’s subtitle spelling in the article.
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