Filmmaker Satyajit Ray was a rare story-teller who not only understood women but refused to restrict their existence to the two-dimensional roles which were a trend then and continues even now. The man who gave the finest film trilogy ever conceived in Indian cinema (The Apu Trilogy) brought to life on-screen, women who were resilient, introspective, bold, complex, but above all humans with flaws and prone to making mistakes.
A resilient mother, a deified daughter-in-law, a bread-winner and a lonely wife
It’s hard to miss out on Ray’s perception of women from the very beginning of his career as a movie maker. Despite being the coming of age story of a small boy, The Apu Trilogy has many noteworthy female characters. Be it Apu’s poverty-stricken mother, who is resilient even in the face of adversities, or his elder sister Durga who is caring and full of maternal love for her brother. Ray has always surrounded his male protagonists with women who play pivotal roles in the story. Another example here is Aranyer Din Ratri, a film revolves around four friends from the city who set out to experience tribal life in order to escape the routine of their urban existence. Here they encounter women who not only expose their hypocrisy but also challenge their ethos with their bold sexuality.
The academy-award winner has always surrounded his male protagonists with women who play pivotal roles in the story.
But it is in his women-centric films like Charulata, Devi, Mahanagar and Ghare Baire, that Ray demonstrates his penchant to create complex female characters. Charulata, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s story “Nastaneer” (‘The Broken Nest), tells us the tale of an intellectually superior and refined woman who falls for her husband’s cousin – Amal.
The plot revolves around a much-married woman who finds solace in the company of her brother-in-law. In the hands of a lesser capable director Charulata could have been an unfaithful loose woman, who breaks the trust of her supportive husband. Yet Ray strips his film adaptation of any judgement.
As a result, Charulata is a story of a lonely woman, pining for love, intellectual companionship in an unsatisfactory marriage.
In Mahanagar, Ray gives us Arati – a homemaker who steps out to work as a saleswoman to financially aid her household. The story is about how this woman discovers her voice and independence. Arati eventually begins to love the idea of financial freedom. But this comes at a personal cost.
Mahanagar however is also a commentary of how most working women are treated in Indian households. The in-laws are against their bahu stepping out to work, while the husband develops a deep insecurity as she begins to ace her professional life, and even doubts her intentions. Arati’s struggle to keep her job amidst social and familial discouragement still rings true for numerous middle-class working women.
Ray not only sketched bold, independent and intellectually sound female characters, but humane, gullible and flawed ones as well.
Devi is one such film, which is about a young woman who is deified by her father-in-law. Here the protagonist Dayamoyee becomes increasingly popular in her community as being the incarnation of a goddess. However, she ends up believing in the fable herself which eventually leads to tragedy. The film is memorable not just for its brazen take on superstitions, but for the heart-wrenching fate of Dayamoyee.
In films like Seemabaddha he tackled issues of changing social values and shallow urban lifestyle through a female gaze. In Ghare Baire he showcased the need to liberate women by giving them the power to make their own choices. Then his Teen Kanya is a compilation of three short women-centric films with themes of unrequited teenage love, obsession and transition of an immature girl into a woman.
Where did we lose Ray’s vision of ordinary middle-class women?
This last decade has seen a surge in women-centric films in the mainstream cinema which have much more to them than themes of oppression, love and social injustice against women. But we no longer have the human-like female characters. Women are either strong or very weak in our films today. They are either bone-breaking patriotic RAW agents or lovelorn damsels in constant need of rescuing.
We have lost the subtlety and realism of Ray’s vision, despite cherishing his cinema. It’s a classic case of worshipping someone but not what he taught or stood for. One can connect with characters from Seemabaddh, Charulata or Mahanagar even in this day and age. But Indian women are still caught in the age-old web of patriarchy, misogyny and oppression. Perhaps apart from revering his directorial vision, the new-age filmmakers could learn a thing or two about sketching female characters as well.
Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are author’s own.