The artistic genius of Satyajit Ray lay in his ability to capture the essence of his times in the process he gave us some of the most iconic moments in world cinema. He was supposedly a regional film-maker, but his appeal went beyond geographical or linguistic borders, which was due to his ability to create a link between the local and the global. The portrayal of women in his films followed the same pattern, they could be set in any part of the world and yet hold true. The female characters in his films were usually carved out with special care. On his birthday today (May 2, 1921) we take a look at the women he created on celluloid.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Satyajit Ray’s films portray women’s issues and gave a more nuanced understanding of feminism.
  • His work proves that to portray women’s perspectives one need not undermine the contributions of men.
  • For Ray no human being, man or woman, is either black or white he believed that grey areas of confusion and misperception exit.
  • For him a woman could be a mother and a wife but she was also a decision maker or a social butterfly. Women in his film were not secondary to, but they did not compete against men.

For, Ray women were central to his films. Women were portrayed as simple yet complicated and on the other hand, they were powerful anchors yet ultimately vulnerable individuals. His films portray women’s issues and gave a more nuanced understanding of feminism.

In a very subtle manner his work proves that to portray women’s perspectives one need not undermine the contributions of men.

If we look at his earlier films especially between 1960 and 1985, they reflected the contemporary social scenario in the sense that the society was not ready to accept a separate existence of women other than in relation to men. Take for example Ghare Baire, Pather Panchali or Charulata these films mainly dealt with the struggle that came with such dynamic existences. What is interesting is that neither of the films is aggressively women-centric or spew hatred against men, instead, in a very subtle manner his work proves that to portray women’s perspectives one need not undermine the contributions of men. That is what modern-day feminism aims for isn’t it?

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Ray chose to show the journey that women make under the gaze of Bengali society. He upheld the fact that true feminism upholds women’s rights but not at the expense of that of men. He recognised the dualistic nature of social institutions such as marriage. As this institution often forms the base of feminist argument, he dealt with this institution in his films Apur Sansar and Kanchenjungha.  In the former, Apu’s conjugal life is arranged and in the latter, Ray takes a light sarcastic look at arranged marriages. Ray’s feminism did not take a biased, radical stance in any case.

If we look at his film Mahanagar for example which showcases the challenges a woman faces in her life beautifully like – family, traditions, individuality and career with a rapidly changing society in the background

Ray tried to show men and women as complementary to each other rather than equals or the opposites. If we look at his film Mahanagar for example which showcases the challenges a woman faces in her life beautifully like – family, traditions, individuality and career with a rapidly changing society in the background, but, amidst these he also depicted that she would find solutions to them.

His films also illustrated the dilemma women face between fulfilling a domestic role in the face of strong emotional and sexual feelings because they remain dissatisfied in their marriages. His films Charulata and Ghare Baire show this angle. His female character Manimalika in Teen Kanya was as real as an insecure and neurotic personality combined with material greed would be. Samapti, in the same film, demonstrated the wild, rebellious character a girl would have before society turns her into a woman. Because, for Ray no human being, man or woman, is either black or white he believed that grey areas of confusion and misperception exit. And he was not afraid to show it in his films.

For Ray no human being, man or woman, is either black or white he believed that grey areas of confusion and misperception exit. And he was not afraid to show it in his films.

Not many film directors have been to true to their historical and social contexts as Ray. In Charulata heshowed the duality of the young educated Bengali woman who had to live within a four-walled domesticity while the world around her was changing rapidly. In the film Mahanagar, Arati comes in slow contact with the urban culture though an Anglo-Indian character. He did not stick to showing women from a certain strata of the society, in Pather Panchali, Apur Sansar and Mahanagar, the female characters belonged to lower-middle class households while in Devi and Ghare Baire, the characters were from the Zamindar families. He also explored the experiences of both urban upper middle class and rural, uneducated women in his film Aranyer Din Ratri.

So, for Ray, a woman could be a mother and a wife but she was also a decision maker or a social butterfly. Women in his film were not secondary to, but they did not compete against men. Ray’s women were effervescent, and complete in themselves.

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Smita Singh is an editor with SheThePeople. The views expressed are her own.

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