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Revisiting Swet Patharer Thala: Woman, Widowhood And Work

October 26, 2013 | By

Swet Patharer Thala presents a different portrayal of the working woman in post-Colonial Bengali cinema that has no feminist slogan to raise. Yet, it raises several important questions on the status and position of a young, modern, educated and beautiful widow in contemporary Bengali society.

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Swet Patharer Thala explores the prejudices society holds on to for the Hindu widow even in circumstances that appear modern and contemporary.

Swet Patharer Thala (1992) was directed by Prabhat Roy and it marked a milestone in Bengali cinema at the time because it walked the tightrope between commercial success and critical acclaim very successfully.

It won the National Award for the Best Regional (Bengali) film and two awards from the Bengal Film Journalists Association (1993) for Aparna Sen as Best Actress and Indrani Sen for Best Playback Singer (Female).

Prabhat Roy during the Nineties was particularly known for his choice of powerful stories with a social agenda, for his ear for music and song, and for his courage in either introducing completely new actors in his films or for presenting mainstream actors in a different way that brings out hidden facets of their histrionic talent.

The story was adapted from Bani Basu’s novel. Basu is one of the most outstanding and popular creative writers in contemporary Bengali literature mainly comprised of fiction – short stories and novels. She places her characters in a contemporary West Bengal setting drawing heavily from real life and updating her approach, treatment and attitude to reflect the changing mindsets and lifestyles of the urban Bengali in particular and the Bengali per se in general.

In Swet Patharer Thala (The Marble Dinner Plate) Bani Basu explores the prejudices society holds on to for the Hindu widow even in circumstances that appear modern and contemporary. The young widow gives up wearing the traditional white a widow is expected to wear not because she wants to but because her little son wants her to who does not understand the implications of his father’s death or of his mother’s widowhood.

“No two of Bani Basu’s novels are alike, each one explores a different segment of experience where imagination is backed by research; she experiments with a variety of narrative modes, realism and irrealism sometimes co-exist in startling way; she is capable of completely changing her language to suit the theme,” writes Meenakshi Mukherjee in Bani Basu’s Novels in Muse India, 2005, Issue 4.

Swet Patharer Thala is peopled by many characters but they zero in on Bandana because the story is about Bandana’s journey from being a young bride married into an apparently affluent and traditional Bengali family to middle age when, at the end of the journey, she chooses to live alone with children who are orphaned like she was as a little child.

Sympathy for the weak, the sick and the deprived is a universal human trait. Bandana is weak and deprived. She is betrayed in life. Her parents passed away when she was little. This pain was undercut by her maternal uncle’s deep love for her that made her forget that she was an orphan.

When she got married, she at last found the ‘family’ she was looking for. Her husband was loving, adorable and a very good family man. His sudden death is another betrayal by destiny. The third betrayal is when her in-laws she felt were so loving, reveal the ugly side of their character and humiliate and oppress her at every turn, depriving her of the financial inheritance that is basically hers by right.

Her loving maternal uncle dies and destiny betrays her once again leaving her alone to fend for her son and herself. Many years later, an old and doddering uncle-in-law informs her that her repentant father-in-law has gifted the family home to Bandana. But it is too late. She has no use for the house she left many years ago.

Her final moment of betrayal comes when her own son turns against her.

Prabhat Roy remains loyal to the original novel and takes minor liberties by introducing music and songs on the one hand and a bit of cinematic romance on the other. Running like an undercurrent is an exploration of how widowhood can change the matrix of a woman’s life that neither education, nor a working status, nor the security of a permanent shelter can help bring back to where it began.

Widowhood is so much internalized by Bandana that she finds it extremely difficult to shed the white she is supposed to wear and stops wearing it because the doctor advises her to so that her little son can come out of his trauma. It is neither rebellious, nor voluntary nor spontaneous.

The visual transformation of Bandana from happy wifehood to lonely widowhood is shown through the metaphor of the big red vermillion dot in the centre of her forehead. We first get a peep into it from behind her sari drawn over her forehead as a bride till her full face comes in view. We then see it smudged on her forehead, her face registering more shock than grief, the smudging of the bindi suggesting the slow change in her social status.

Then, her forehead is completely shorn of the bindi and her sari has turned into pristine white when she emerges as a full-fledged widow. When she returns to light, printed cotton saris later on, her bindi is a tiny black dot, a small token of what she feels will appease her little son.

The forced fasting on ekadashi, mandatory for widows, or the switching over to a vegetarian diet is depicted as torture. At some points, Bandana cannot take it anymore. She finds it difficult to follow the rigid religious rituals demanded of a widow. But she goes through it, incurring increased wrath instead of satisfaction from her cruel mother-in-law.

But she never acts the martyr or demands the pity of the audience. Roy has tried to portray her as a martyr but the characterization does not carry the argument forward. Bandana’s subservience to her in-laws was in accordance with her social conditioning to the ideology that a married woman is not supposed to question why. She comes out of that subservience and away with her uncle to live with him.

In the social world the film depicts, no married woman, widowed or otherwise, can walk out of the marital home unless driven out of it. This is a powerful statement of rebellion, somewhat undercut by the moral, financial and social support of her loving uncle.

Bandana is not the sobbing, weepy, sentimental, self-pitying widow. The film whitewashes her as the purest of the pure. When she finds that the artist has filled his walls with his painted portraits of her, her face registers more fear than pleasure.

In normal circumstances, any woman would be flattered. This too, is part of the socialization of Bandana. The metamorphosis in her growing son’s sketches and paintings point out how his mind is reacting to his mother’s increasing friendship with a man who is not his father. This is a product of his socialization – that his mother has no right to any relationship other than that she shared with his father.

Bandana accepts Abhiroop’s rejection of Sudipto as his art teacher, as his mother’s friend and even as a kind family friend. Though the audience can actually feel that she enjoys the company and emotional support Sudipto gives her and visits him at his bachelor den spontaneously one day, she turns away from the relationship getting deeper more as a strategy of escaping from herself than as escaping from Sudipto.

Swet Patharer Thala presents a different portrayal of the working woman in post-Colonial Bengali cinema that has no feminist slogan to raise.

Swet Patharer Thala presents a different portrayal of the working woman in post-Colonial Bengali cinema that has no feminist slogan to raise.

Filmmakers have projected the ‘voice’ of the main female character in a myriad different ways where this ‘voice’ could somewhere along the way, be interpreted as the voice of the filmmaker himself, considering the celluloid negotiations and the slippages that naturally occur between the film and its literary source.

Through repeated readings of films, the viewer discerns that through the ‘voice’ he invests his central character with, the filmmaker is projecting his own voice – point of view, perspective, whatever – on the state of things as they are, thereby raising critical questions of fairness and justice to women in general and to the particular woman within the film in particular.

This ‘merging’ of the two ‘voices’ – that of the director and that of the character he creates, leads to the unfolding of a third ‘voice’ – the voice of the audience that takes the film out with itself long after its theatrical screening is over to ponder on, to question, to reflect and to draw its own conclusions.

In this context, where does the world of ‘work’ fit into the life of Bandana? She has stepped into work by circumstantial pressures. She was happy singing and dancing and playing hide-and-seek with her husband when he was alive.

The use of Tagore songs has been done with imagination and conviction. Would she have ever ventured to take up a job if her husband had been alive? Or, if her in-laws had not pulled off the financial security of her husband’s life insurance money and provident fund from under her feet?

Swet Patharer Thala was adapted from Bani Basu’s novel.

Swet Patharer Thala was adapted from Bani Basu’s novel.

She would have kept on living under the feudal roof had her life remained the way it was. In course of time, she would have learnt to cope with the rituals of widowhood she hated so much because it reminded her of her husband. May be yes, May be no. But she could have remained at home even in her uncle’s house if she had wished to. He never asked her to search for a job. But she feels she should not be a burden on him in his old age with a growing child in tow.

Does Bandana’s working life change her life in any way? Yes, it does. She becomes confident of herself. She gains a sense of self-esteem she did not have when her world was centered on her husband. The office space is not as neutral for a beautiful woman as one might think it is because the women in her office stab her with gossip sometimes within her hearing, and sometimes behind her back.

Men are ready to send the wrong kind of signals to a young widow. She learns to cope without losing her temper. Her body language changes and so does her way of dress though she remains loyal to the sari. She learns to say ‘no’ with grace and firmness that were not evident earlier. She responds to the insulting comments her son’s mother-in-law and wife hurl at her with caustic and razor-sharp statements that shake them up enough to lose their cool.

But she remains calm, collected and in control. The whitewashing of Bandana’s character may be exaggerated. But it is done with the right balance between restraint and melodrama.

Swet Patharer Thala is not a tear-jerker but is also not all real life. It tries to evoke sympathy for Bandana and juxtaposes her against all the ‘bad’ people she has around her. The question is – does Bandana really need the sympathy of the audience? The film says differently. She is strong and can carry on without audience sympathy.

Sudipto is nice but too soft and timid to assert himself and demand marriage. He is weaker than the woman he loves. He moves away when she asks him to. Why? What stops him from demanding that they get married? What stops him from being more assertive than just walking out of her life on her say-so?

Swet Patharer Thala presents a different portrayal of the working woman in post-Colonial Bengali cinema that has no feminist slogan to raise. Yet, it raises several important questions on the status and position of a young, modern, educated and beautiful widow in contemporary Bengali society.

The use of Tagore songs in Swet Patharer Thala

Creative Writing

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Dr. Shoma A Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. Her focus of interest lies in Indian cinema, human rights, media, gender and child rights. She has authored 24 books mainly on Indian cinema and on gender and has been jury at several film festivals in India and abroad. She has won two National Awards - for Best Film Critic in 1991 and for Best Book on cinema in 2002. She has also won four fellowships over the past 10 years.
All Posts of Shoma A Chatterji

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