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What Women Want: Their Extraordinary World in Satyajit Ray's Cinema

24 Apr, 2020 | Long Features by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri
Mahanagar (1963). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives

Adoor Gopalakrishnan has said that ‘Indian cinema began with Ray’. Among the many changes that Satyajit Ray ushered in Indian cinema, arguably the most revolutionary has been the way he portrayed women on-screen. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri provides a glimpse into the remarkable women in Ray’s films.


‘What I admire in woman is grace, sophistication and intelligence. I always felt that women are weaker than men only in relation to their physical strength but they are inferior neither in intellect nor in mental stamina, and they have a hard core of sincerity in them, even when they have been educated into the ways of this wicked world and corrupted, which men lack.’ – Satyajit Ray 

Indian films have made undeniable progress in technical terms, but when it comes to the portrayal of women, films often brandish an image of women that is largely decorative and secondary, often regressive. Shyam Benegal, one of the few Indian film-makers who has consistently created strong, individualistic women in his films, has said, ‘In our cinema, a woman’s virtue is in being the good mother, wife, sister – a set of essential roles a woman has to play – which is a terrible kind of oppression; a glorification not allowing the woman any choice.’ Though things have changed for the better in the past decade, by and large, women in popular cinema have either been glamour dolls, decked up only for the male gaze, or the eternal caregiver, sacrificing herself, her identity, her happiness for the common good of her family. 

One of the many aspects that sets a Satyajit Ray film apart is the way he provides his women with an agency that is generally missing in popular Indian cinema.
One of the many aspects that sets a Satyajit Ray film apart is the way he provides his women with an agency that is generally missing in popular Indian cinema. There was nothing contrived or conscious about his understanding of women and how he translated that on-screen. This perhaps can be understood in the context of the presence of two strong women in Ray’s life – his mother, a single parent, and his wife, who sat by Ray through his creative pursuits even when things were not going well for him. 

It is interesting to look at women in Ray’s films in relation to the era in which these were made and the times they depicted. Whether in period pieces like Charulata (1964) and Ghare Baire (1984) or contemporary dramas like Kanchenjungha (1962), Mahanagar (1963) and Nayak (1966), the women in his films are exceptional in the way they articulate their emotional, sexual and intellectual longings. Sharmila Tagore, who has starred in Ray classics like Apur Sansar, Devi, Nayak and Aranyer Din Ratri, says, ‘Ray will be particularly remembered for the array of complex women characters he created. This is immensely significant in a country where women characters in cinema have always had, and continue to have, a secondary role to play, primarily as the hero’s lover who exists only in relation to the hero. Ray’s women were primary protagonists in their own right. They exuded a restrained energy; perhaps best described by the expression that Ray used for the cinema of Kurosawa “Fire Within, Calm Without”; a metaphor inspired by Mount Fujiyama.’
 
Apur Sansar (1959). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
Sharmila Tagore, who has starred in Ray classics like Apur Sansar, Devi, Nayak and Aranyer Din Ratri, says, ‘Ray will be particularly remembered for the array of complex women characters he created. This is immensely significant in a country where women characters in cinema have always had, and continue to have, a secondary role to play, primarily as the hero’s lover who exists only in relation to the hero. Ray’s women were primary protagonists in their own right.'
Even a cursory look at the female characters in Ray’s films will reveal the special care with which he portrayed them. Let’s begin with the Apu Trilogy. Though the three films in the trilogy revolve around Apu, it is in his relationship with the other characters, predominantly female, that the trilogy really stands out: Indir Thakrun, Durga, Sarbajaya and Aparna. Sarabjaya is a woman battered by the ravages of poverty, stoically bearing what fate throws at her. Yet, nowhere in the portrayal is there a hint of heroism or self-pity. This is the era of Mother India, Mughal-e-Azam and Pyaasa in Hindi cinema – all considered epitomes of iconic women characters in Indian cinema. The difference in the way Ray approaches Sarbajaya is stark: unlike the women in these Hindi films, there is neither a sense of victimhood nor glorification of her fortitude. As Pauline Kael says, ‘There is no one more than Ray who makes us re-evaluate the commonplace.’ At the same time, look at the women in his contemporary Ritwik Ghatak’s films, particularly Meghe Dhaka Tara, which came out at the same time. While Ghatak raises melodrama to an art, with the sound of the whiplash on the soundtrack or Neeta’s final cry, ‘Dada ami bachte chai’, there is no denying that Ghatak’s women, much like the iconic women in Hindi cinema, were essentially ‘mother goddesses’. Sarbajaya, in contrast, has only to cast a sideways glance or utter a monosyllable and you get an idea of a lifetime of suffering. 
 
Pather Panchali (1955). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
The difference in the way Ray approaches Sarbajaya is stark: unlike the women in these Hindi films, there is neither a sense of victimhood nor glorification of her fortitude. As Pauline Kael says, ‘There is no one more than Ray who makes us re-evaluate the commonplace.’
Indir Thakrun, stooped double, deeply wrinkled, is another memorable character. We remember almost every nuance of her performance: the way she greedily looks at Sarbajaya eating, her close connection with Durga. When an angry Sarbajaya tells her to leave, notice the way she appears at the door of another relative, asking, ‘Can I stay?’ She has no home, no possessions except for her clothes and a bowl, but she never seems desperate because she embodies complete acceptance. 

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the trilogy is the relationship between Apu and his mother. As celebrated film critic Roger Ebert has pointed out, it is symbolic of the ‘truths that must exist in all cultures: how the parent makes sacrifices for years, only to see the child turn aside and move thoughtlessly away into adulthood … Apu comes to visit during a school vacation, he sleeps or loses himself in his books, answering her with monosyllables. He seems in a hurry to leave, but has second thoughts at the train station, and returns for one more day. The way the film records his stay, his departure and his return says whatever can be said about lonely parents and heedless children.’
Sharmila Tagore who immortalized Aparna on screen says, ‘It speaks of Manik-da’s understanding of the actor’s and character’s psyche that the first scene he gave me to shoot was the one in which I arrive as a bride to Apu’s room on the top of the terrace. Soumitra Chatterjee and I were standing this side of the door. The camera was on the other side. The door is shut. Manik-da shouted, “Start sound, camera, action.” And Soumitra opens the door, goes in, turns to me and says, “Esho.” I take that tentative step in. I am still in my bridal attire, the mukut in my hand. I come into the room and Manik-da says, “Come straight, look up, look right, look straight, raise your shoulders, sigh, cut, excellent, next shot.’ And it was over. First take okay. And immediately after, he took that shot of Aparna going over to the window and sitting on the cot and getting overwhelmed. Then she looks down at the mother and child playing and laughing. She calms down. I think her tears come out of tiredness, the huge change, the fact that they are now just the two of them, she is new to the city, although on the night of the wedding, in the bedroom just after the rituals were over, she had been quite confident. But that was then, and this is now and the realization is quite overwhelming. And then she sees the mother and child. I think what Manik-da wants to say is that a woman’s instinct, of nurturing, of taking care, takes over and she comes to terms with her new beginning. Immediately, you notice a perceptive change on her face – they are much worse off than she and Apu are, she realizes. And it is for the audience to take what it can from the scene.
 
Devi (1969). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
Sharmila Tagore who immortalized Aparna on screen says, ‘It speaks of Manik-da’s understanding of the actor’s and character’s psyche that the first scene he gave me to shoot was the one in which I arrive as a bride to Apu’s room on the top of the terrace.'
In Devi (1960), the patriarch of the family is an ardent believer of Kali. His younger son, Umaprasad, though not comfortable, is not bold enough to defy his father’s authority or challenge his blind faith. Harisundari, the elder daughter-in-law, superbly played by Karuna Banerjee, stands somewhere in the middle. She survives in a patriarchal world by accepting things she has no control over. She is educated, rational, even compassionate, but is unable to let go of centuries of orthodox conditioning. Doyamoyee, an unlettered village girl, married at an impossibly young age, is unable to resist the fanatic will of her father-in-law. Even as she is dressed and garlanded as a devi, one just needs to look at her face to know that she is shocked and overwhelmed with the enormity of what has happened to her so suddenly and which she cannot fully comprehend. Confused and disoriented, she is too timid, tradition-bound, too young to assert her will of self-preservation. In the most powerful scene in the film, Uma gives Doya an opportunity to escape to Calcutta with him, but she is unwilling to take it. She is unable to reclaim her identity. She is afraid that doing so might bring bad luck to her husband. There is nothing more tragic than her words, ‘Jodi ami debi hoi, tomar jodi kono amangal hoy.
 
Charulata (1964). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
His period pieces, Charulata and Ghare Baire, bring to the fore the dilemma women face between fulfilling the domestic role in the face of increasingly strong emotional and sexual feelings.
His period pieces, Charulata and Ghare Baire, bring to the fore the dilemma women face between fulfilling the domestic role in the face of increasingly strong emotional and sexual feelings. Charu symbolizes women in Bengal of the era who seemed happy but were struggling with society-imposed loneliness. Ray conveys Charu’s solitude and longing with a rare understanding of the feminine psyche. It is important to note here how when she begins to write, Charu does not copy her brother-in-law’s style, but chooses to explore her own voice. And she goes on to get published on her own steam, with no help from Amal nor from her husband, both of whom are unaware of her many qualities. The look on her face as she flings the published piece at Amal says it all. 
 
Ghare Baire (1984). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives


In Ghare Baire, Bimala worships her husband Nikhilesh as she was taught to do. But, once exposed to the world outside, her devotion falters. Interestingly enough, it is Nikhilesh who encourages his wife to come out of the andarmahal. Ray gives us a wonderfully real character, a timid housewife who understands herself better after encountering the world outside. In the hands of a lesser film-maker, this could have been a titillating or moralizing extramarital saga on-screen. But again Ray gives his protagonist agency, and in his vision Bimala becomes a woman with a mind of her own, who knows the price she will have to pay for daring to break free. 
At a time when a working woman in Indian films was as rare as snow in the Sahara, Mahanagar is an eye-opener.
At a time when a working woman in Indian films was as rare as snow in the Sahara, Mahanagar is an eye-opener. In the mid-1960s, the middle-class Bengali household was undergoing tremendous changes. As Arati transforms from a homemaker to a working wife, the film brings to the fore the challenges a woman faces in reconciling various aspects of life – family, traditions, individuality and career – under the pressures of a rapidly changing society. The familial pressures she experiences are true even today: The parents react with shame – no self-respecting man should allow his wife to work, the old father-in-law declares ‘cold war’ on his son and will not speak to him, the husband must reconcile his self-respect with his wife’s new status as a breadwinner. Yet, Arati does not lose the essence of her character. She uses lipstick at work but wipes it off before returning home every day, eventually throwing it away to appease her jealous and increasingly insecure husband.
 
Aranyer Din Ratri (1970). Image Courtesy: Cinemaazi archives
Again, not surprisingly for a Ray film, it is the women in the film who provide a strong moral contrast to the men with feet of clay.
Aparna in Aranyer Din Ratri is a woman who through her non-judgemental attitude, her common sense and understanding appeals to the hero’s better self, his innate humanity. Her intelligence, poise and perceptiveness come to the fore in the famous memory game, where she realizes how winning the game has become a matter of male ego for Aseem and lets him win. Again, not surprisingly for a Ray film, it is the women in the film who provide a strong moral contrast to the men with feet of clay. In that sense, Aparna is a continuation of Nayak’s Aditi – a sort of ‘conscience keeper’ to the ‘troubled’ star, who comes to the realization that he need not be a star to her, which is hugely liberating for him.
From Sarbojaya to Bimala, the women in Ray’s films trace an arc that encompasses the entire gamut of the feminine experience.
From Sarbojaya to Bimala, the women in Ray’s films trace an arc that encompasses the entire gamut of the feminine experience. Consider the three women in Teen Kanya: the silent rebuke in Ratan’s demeanour and gaze in Postmaster, the neurotic and unstable Manimalika in Monihara, the wild Mrinmoyee in Samapti, who resists turning into a woman from a tomboyish girl, only because society dictates so. Or the women in Kanchenjungha – Labanya, Monisha and Anima – who in their own way battle patriarchy as exemplified by Indranath Choudhury. And this they do unobtrusively, without no grandstanding or high-octane dialogues. At no stage do these women step out of the demands of the film to make their statement – it is in their everyday nature that their heroism lies. As Ray himself said, ‘I feel that a common person, an ordinary person, is a more challenging subject for cinematic exploration than persons cast in heroic moulds, either good or bad. It is these half-shades, the hardly audible notes that I want to explore and capture … When I write an original story, I write about people I know first-hand and situations I am familiar with.’
As Ray himself said, ‘I feel that a common person, an ordinary person, is a more challenging subject for cinematic exploration than persons cast in heroic moulds, either good or bad.'
Even the secondary women characters in his films speak so eloquently of the time in which he made his films. Dolon, the wife in Seemabaddha, is the typical boxwallah’s wife of the era. She probably does not even realize that she does not have an emotional or intellectual connect with her husband (who thus seeks the intellectual stimulation his sister-in-law offers) even as she goes about her duties as wife and mother and as a woman who loves the trappings of a good life. In Aranyer Din Ratri, the suppressed sexuality and tension that Jaya brings to the screen in that one scene with Sanjoy says more than a hundred explicit expressions in popular cinema then or now. Gulabi in Abhijan and Duli in Aranyer Din Ratri are women who operate at the margins of society and yet in the hands of Ray, they never become the caricaturish prostitute or tribal girl we have been used to seeing. Pikoo unapologetically depicts the many shades of a woman’s desire. The adulterous wife is nonchalant about her affair with her husband’s friend and is uninhibited about the sexual nature of her relationship. Saswati Ghosh remarks, ‘Satyajit Ray actually recognized and depicted women as sexual beings with the same desires and needs as that of men – something patriarchy still can’t quite come to terms with – without ever filming overtly sexual scenes.’
Saswati Ghosh remarks, ‘Satyajit Ray actually recognized and depicted women as sexual beings with the same desires and needs as that of men – something patriarchy still can’t quite come to terms with – without ever filming overtly sexual scenes.’
These women blazed a trail at time when Indian society was yet to see women as independent entities who need not be hyphenated with the men in the lives – their husbands, sons, lovers – for them to find meaning. At the same time, none of these women had to rave and rant against patriarchal mindsets to make their presence felt. They existed in harmony within the narrative space of the films that neither spewed hatred against men nor were aggressive in articulating their points of view. As Writija Samsal writes, ‘In a very subtle manner, Ray’s work proved that for the portrayal of women’s perspectives one need not necessarily undermine the contributions of men. Ray’s films were truly but not determinately feminist. This is to buttress the fact that true feminism upholds women’s rights not at the expense of that of men.’
 

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About the Author

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is either an 'accidental' editor who strayed into publishing from a career in finance and accounts or an 'accidental' finance person who found his calling in publishing. He studied commerce and after about a decade in finance and accounts, he left it for good. He did a course in film, television and journalism from the Xavier's Institute of Mass Communication, Mumbai, after which he launched a film magazine of his own called Lights Camera Action. As executive editor at HarperCollins Publishers India, he helped launch what came to be regarded as the go-to cinema, music and culture list in Indian publishing. Books commissioned and edited by him have won the National Award for Best Book on Cinema and the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) Award for Best Writing on Cinema. He also commissioned and edited some of India's leading authors like Gulzar, Manu Joseph, Kiran Nagarkar, Arun Shourie and worked out co-pub arrangements with the Society for the Preservation of Satyajit Ray Archives, apart from publishing a number of first-time authors in cinema whose books went on to become best-sellers. In 2017, he was named Editor of the Year by the apex publishing body, Publishing Next. He has been a regular contributor to Anupama Chopra's online magazine Film Companion. He is also a published author, with two books to his credit: Whims – A Book of Poems (published by Writers Workshop) and Icons from Bollywood (published by Penguin Books). 

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