Tags: Films

Today, on Satyajit Ray’s 94th birth anniversary, we zoom in on the director’s remarkable women characters and the leading ladies who gave them life

In a very poignant moment in Satyajit Ray’s debut masterpiece, Pather Panchali (1955), Sarbajaya, the middle-aged mother who manages to hold together her impoverished family against all odds, notices a fruit lying on the ground near a neighbour’s garden, looks around surreptitiously and then quickly picks it up, hides it under the pallu of her sari and sidles away.

In one stroke, for the first time in the history of Indian cinema, Ray demystifies the aura of the all-good sacrificial mother and lays bare a woman who suddenly becomes real without looking petty. That she had severely beaten up her daughter earlier in the film for thievery accentuates this act of hers even more and makes her look credible.

Perhaps no other Indian director has dealt with such a wide range of subject matters as Ray did in his oeuvre of 29 feature films. And when it comes to his gallery of women characters, they have been as varied as the films he made. His heroines were all ordinary human beings with their warts and frailties, rooted, credible and compassionate. Their moral posturing was devoid of any feminist agenda or social bravado, but each displayed a trait that transcended their ordinariness and turned them into memorable characters, resilient and admirable.

As Ray had once remarked, “I think I have perhaps a subconscious conviction about women — that they are basically more honest, more forthright… because physically they are the weaker sex, there are perhaps certain compensating factors in the general makeup of their characters.”

Dayamoyee, a 17-year old child-bride played by Sharmila Tagore in her debut role in Devi (1960) begins to believe in her role of a goddess which is thrust upon her by her conservative father-in-law in 19th century rural Bengal; but when she fails to revive her husband’s ailing nephew, whom she doted on, and the child dies, a traumatised Daya begins to suspect her own powers and urges her educated husband to run away together from the horror of it all.

If it took a tragedy to awaken a woman to the horrors of ritualistic religion and blind faith, poverty propels Arati in Mahanagar (1963), a traditional middle-class urban housewife to take up the job of a saleswoman, much against the wishes of her conservative husband and in-laws. Her image makeover — she begins to sport sunglasses and apply lipstick — symbols of a ‘fast woman’, is accompanied by a gradual strengthening of her character. Also, she begins to learn the tricks of the trade which also include lying to impress. But when one of her colleagues — an Anglo-Indian woman — is unjustifiably sacked by her racially prejudiced boss, she stands up against him and demands an unconditional apology, knowing fully well the inevitability of her own fate. She gives up her job and walks out with her unemployed husband in the labyrinths of the big city, seeking a better tomorrow.

Madhabi Mukherjee delivers a scintillating performance as Arati which is matched in her next film — Charulata (1964), where she plays a bored housewife, married to a rich man in late 19th century Calcutta — a dreamer-entrepreneur, engaged in editorial pursuits. Artistically inclined and sensitive herself, her loneliness constantly seeks an outlet which she finds in her husband’s cousin who comes to stay with them. Both are young and bond through their love for literature; and the inevitable happens: she falls in love with him.

Without being moralistic or judgmental, Ray explores their relationship in all its subtle complexities, through the growth of the woman as she takes up writing for literary magazines, more as a challenge to her companion, and her growing realisation that this kind of relationship can have no future. Charulata, as she is called, retains her poise throughout, despite transgressing at a time that did not allow women to venture out of the house without male company. Her tragedy accentuates the fact that she dared dream beyond her confined role and class.

Sharmila Tagore, with her cool and urbane screen persona often fulfilled the role of a sensitive and intelligent woman in Ray’s films, acting as a moral touchstone that brings out the male characters into sharp relief that puts them in their places as they are forced to look at themselves in a new light, often through subtle humiliation. In Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest, 1969) she constantly engages her suitor — played by a suave Soumitra Chatterjee — in a subtle power game where she deliberately lets him win her over to bolster his ego but makes sure that he realises it, till the man’s confidence begins to wear away and he acknowledges his defeat. Similarly in Seemabadhha (Company Limited, 1971) Sharmila plays the role of Tutul, the sister-in-law of a senior executive whose rise in the corporate hierarchy is lost on her because she understands the devious machinations behind his success, unlike her complacent elder sister who is married to him. She does not make an issue out of it but her muted reaction shatters the man’s ego that spells doom to their bonding: he becomes the biggest loser at the highest point in his career.

In Nayak (1966), Sharmila plays the snooty editor of a women’s magazine who happens to be travelling on the Rajdhani Express with a reigning Bengali star played by the legendary Uttam Kumar, on his way to Delhi to collect a national award. She overcomes her initial arrogance and interviews him for her magazine. The journalist in her gives way to a compassionate listener as the star lays bare his life, at the end of which she tears away her notes, deciding to keep his story inside her heart rather than write about it for public consumption.

Clearly, whether it was mother-figure Sarbajaya, child-bride Dayamoyee, working woman Arati or bored housewife Charulata, Ray’s women of substance stood out for their vulnerability, sensitivity, grace and dignity.

(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)


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