Women In The Cinema of Satyajit Ray
Suggestion. Metaphor. Underplaying. Subtlety of expression.
There is a kind of insistence and monotony in the way women within the family are typecast into clichéd models of plastic human beings in cinema, and to some extent, in literature as well. Generally speaking, these two extremely polarized images of women we are familiar with are (1) the chaste, docile and submissive woman who is conditioned to martyr herself for any cause linked to the family, and (2) the unchaste, vile and voluptuous woman whose values are diametrically opposed to the values held sacro sanct by the former.
The former is placed on a pedestal and celebrated while the latter is condemned and ostracized. Sadly, the gray areas that exist between these extremes of black and white do not seem to exist for the average filmmaker. Both categories of women can easily be reduced to the lowest common denominator of being stripped of choice, and of exploring spaces within which they can grow beyond the parameters the family rigidly fixes them within.
Most allegations for the perpetration of these clichéd celluloid images of womanhood and wifehood in cinema are directed directly at men, since as males, they form the majority of filmmakers across the world in general and in India in particular.
None of Ray’s women on celluloid can be reduced to cliché. They defy every imaginable kind of stereotyping. Nor do they permit getting ghettoized within the Ray genre of films. For Ray, therefore, it is not a question of representing either real women, or women of fantasy, or women from literature.
It is rather, a question of filmic representations of women contributing to, and constructing our understanding of what a woman is; of a re-thinking and re-conditioning of what we have been used to, through and by mainstream cinema.
He has never attempted, in any way whatever, to define a non-patriarchal representation of Woman. But he has proved, time and again, in film after film, that though conventional narrative film forms themselves are complicit in producing women as subordinate, it is for the creative imagination of a director like himself to use these very forms to present positive, dynamic and alternative representations of women.
He has successfully structured his Charu and Arati and Bimala and Monisha out of dominant modes of representation. He never intended to structure any ‘corrective’ or any ‘re-ordering’ of women characters in cinema. Nor did he resort to difficult and avant gardist strategies. All he had to do to was to alter the language of cinema to suit his creatively challenging ends.
He did this, by creating his own film language for, and of women. He did not compromise on aesthetic challenges to make his statements on women. He did not need to. He used his aesthetics to alter modes of female representation, and he did this without any expectation in consumption - that of making the box-office his final target.
Ray’s Pather Panchali has given Indian cinema some women who are as classic as they are contemporary. We have the literary archetypes – the housewife Sarbajaya, the doddering old aunt, Indir Thakrun, the growing daughter Durga, and the young bride Aparna. Sarbajaya is throbbingly alive on screen, adding flesh and blood to the literary character Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay created with his gifted pen. Sarbajaya, Apu’s mother, a semi-literate, naïve, a bit rustic and poor, grows through Pather Panchali and Aparajito from a young mother to middle-age, from the epicenter of her family to woman impoverished more by her loneliness than by the poverty that dogs her all her adult life.
Despite the humiliating poverty she does her best to hide from her neighbours, Sarbajaya has a quiet dignity about her, and still believes in the value of honesty. The anger that runs like an undercurrent is anger directed at the poverty she is trapped within and can do nothing about.
There is just a single shot in Devi through which the viewer is offered an insight into the protagonist Dayamoyee’s aborted rebellion against the goddess-image she is vested with, much against her will. Her father-in-law Kalikinkar Roy (the feudal landlord who is almost a fanatic devotee of Godess Kali,) bends to touch her feet on the morning after he dreams of her as the human personification of the Goddess. Dayamoyee turns to the wall, scratching her nails down its length, curling her toes inwards. The expression on her face, seen partially in profile, registers an expression that is a strange, almost uncanny blend of anguish, self-pity, pain, grief and surprise.
Charulata was based on a Tagore short story called Nastaneer which during the time Tagore wrote it, received a lot of flak from the Bengali intelligentsia. In Charulata, Ray employed every creative and cinematic device he could imagine, bringing one of Tagore’s most radical and much-debated short stories alive on celluloid.
Ray repeatedly insisted that Charulata was his personal favourite. Perhaps because Charu is the most complex, fluid, flexible, bold and dynamic of Ray’s celluloid women. Her constant ‘companion’, in the opening scenes of the film, is a lorgnette, (a pair of opera glasses.) They offer her the only ‘window’ to look at the world outside. This includes husband Bhupati, because she finds him too distanced from her world of emotions. The rhythmic use of the zoom to keep time with the music track as she looks through the glasses at her husband, underscores this beautifully. This is one, among some other ways of relieving herself of the stasis that has set into her marriage.
His films looked at as a body of work of an auteur director, simultaneously depict a society where women are silenced, their experience and particular insights undermined and dismissed, and convincingly depict the legitimacy and coherence of women’s position and experience. Yet, they are as different from each other as chalk from cheese.
Arati of Mahanagar bears not the remotest resemblance to Charu of Charulata. Though, the same actress - Madhabi Mukherjee, portrays both roles. Note however that, men are not portrayed as the perpetrators of women’s oppression. Though Ray himself confessed to having slowly switched over to themes of social relevance only in the last part of his career, his earlier, ‘literary’ phase, where he explored classical writers like Bibhuti Bhusan (the Apu Trilogy), or, Tarashankar (Jalsaghar, Abhijaan), or, Parasuram (Parash Pathar) or, Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyay (Debi) and of course, Tagore (Charulata, Teen Kanya, Ghare Baire), are no less socially relevant statements on life, fairness and justice to humanity.
He may not have consciously designed them to be so. But as the films evolved into a final creative work of artistic expression, one discovered that they had simultaneously, perhaps unwittingly, evolved into strong social statements as well without any attempt at labelling or slogan raising. Two women from two of Ray’s outstanding oeuvres, namely, Charulata and Mahanagar, might help confirm this belief.
A lorgnette (opera glasses.) (Charulata.) A stick of lipstick;( Mahanagar.) A box of jewels; ( Monihara.) A hairpin left behind on a rumpled pillow; (Apur Sansar.) A bag of gold coins; (Ghare Baire.) A baby squirrel; (Samapti.)
These tiny, almost insignificant details subtly suggest the characteristics of Ray’s women. Not only the women per se, but also their relationships with other characters within the film; and their evolution as full-blooded women over the footage of the film. Not all of them. But some. The women who do not have such concrete metaphors, like Dayamoyee of Debi, Bimala of Ghare Baire, Monisha of Kanchenjungha, Sarbojaya of Pather Panchali and Aparajita, etc. also stand out for the reticence with which they underline their presence within the cinematographic and narrative space of his films. Because, it is neither possible nor desirable to abstract a female character from a Ray film and settle down to analyse, dissect, interpret or question it.
She is a part of the integrated whole that is the film. She is so meshed into the entire scenario, that you just cannot take Charu out of Charulata without referring to Amal and Bhupati and even Mandakini, her sister-in-law. Nor can one take her away from her Bankim Chandra decorating the shelves of their well appointed home; or, the swing that takes her into a trip into nostalgia, inspiring her to begin writing. That too, is a part of Charu.
Suggestion. Metaphor. Underplaying. Subtlety of expression. These are the hallmarks of Ray, which fan out to include his women.