CHANGING FACES OF WOMEN IN BENGALI CINEMA: Sanchari Ghosh
The representation of women and its evolution with time, has played a significant role in Bengali celluloid. During the 1960s when films like Mahanagar (1965) were shaping up, there were new economic pressures on the Bengali community where middle-class and lower middle class women were taking up jobs for the first time. The likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak Mrinal Sen and Asit Sen were representing women’s struggle, sufferings, and their emerging sense of identity and independence which continued till 1990s in the celluloid. However, since the late 1990s the changing face of women has reflected the shifting identity in Bengali celluloid.
Historically, cinema portrayed women within a specific structure of representation that belongs to the idealised values of womanhood in the patriarchal system, confined within the structure of stereotypes, maintaining established patriarchal social norms. Patrica Uberoi (1990) has claimed that by portraying women this way, media fans a gender bias, and there is lack of space for female subjectivity. A host of parallel cinema on the other hand, captured many times the conflict between male and female voices, in a society of transition.[i] Let us for a moment, grasp a female voice as follows:-
“Do not vote them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they do not prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminist feminist. I am the third wave.”-Rebecca Walker[ii]
Before the emergence of the third wave, second wave feminists fought the stereotypes that considered them as humourless and ugly. Women struggled to be taken seriously, to be more than their pretty faces. They wanted to be defined by their minds rather than their bodies. Amongst the rising third wave feminists in the late 1990s, image and body becomes the centre of feminist entitlement. For many women, bodies have become the canvasses, upon which their struggles paint themselves.[iii] For example, if we read a cinema like – “Shunno Ey Bukey” (Empty canvas- 2005) by Kaushik Ganguly, perhaps the shift becomes obvious. It represents Teesta (Churni Ganguly), the female protagonist, as a flat-chested. The film deals with agony of a woman with small breasts and it deals with the female psyche. However, according to the feminist writer Taslima Nasreen, the film still reflects “the same old way of looking at women through the eyes of men.”[iv] The director here has a sensitive insight in to the female psyche. The very undertone of the film becomes a mirror that reflects the orthodoxy and hypocrisy of our society. Since beginning till the end, Churni Ganguly beautifully portrays a soft spoken but internally austere woman, who demands acceptance of herself, the way she is. Teesta, while talking to her artist husband Soumitro (Kaushik Sen) says with assertion, “I am neither your creation nor a Khajuraho sculpture”. Unlike Taslima’s reading of the film, this assertive voice of Teesta establishes how a woman of this millennium rebels against the deep rooted projection of women, seen as ‘sex objects’ in our culture and society .[v]
In “Chokher Bali” (Sands in the Eye- 2003), an adaptation of a novel of same name by Tagore (Tagore wrote this novel in early 20th century, Ghosh also set his period around same time), the director Rituparno Ghosh portrays Binodini (Aishwariya Rai) who is firmly entangled, yet struggling to make sense of her identity as an educated, spirited young woman trapped within the confines of widowhood. The lack of socially sanctioned space for women like her, for their expression of feminine subjectivity outside these social roles, marks the theme of the film. Binodini’s character is a multi-layered one where the audience is in tune with her desires and struggles.[vi] Ghosh here deliberately uses the opera glasses. Binodini uses the opera-glasses to peek through the window into Mahendra and Ashalata’s bedroom. If we trace back to Ray’s Charulata ( Lonely wife -1960 ), same glasses were used by Ray to stress on the way how women used to be confined within patriarch establishments , within male defined boundaries and estranged from the world of her own or from her love interests. Unlike Charu of Ray, Ghosh wanted Binodini to use the same opera glass most voyeuristically. As opposed to it, in run of the mill commercial cinema, the stock representation of women even today, always reflects male gaze or the patriarch point of view. The women are portrayed in a way the established male gaze wants to see them – as objects of their sexuality and prejudiced entitlement. To his readers, Ghosh alters the gaze and transplant a ‘female’ gaze in its place, so that Binodini becomes a voyeur and it is through Binodini’s eyes that the viewers become involved in her struggle.[vii]
Let us recall a sequence, where we see Binodini in her white saree (signifying widowhood) and adorned with Ashalata’s jewellery. Immediately her clouded widowhood transcends in to a youthful feminist. She is represented as a character, who transcends the space of her deep seated social identity, through the use of clothing and jewellery. Let’s not forget Binodini’s assertion- “I am a young woman, educated and a widow but all have eclipsed my real identity…I am also flesh and blood.”[viii] Despite widowhood, Binodini wants to have a right and entitelement of her feminity and to have passion for life. Through portrayal of Binodini, we unmistakably hear the the voice of third-wave feminism, which claims not only an intellectual recognition, but also an entitlement for her sexuality and womanhood.
For a moment, we may shift our focus to a comparatively lighter work, to Mainak Bhaumik’s “Ami Aar Amar Girlfriends (Me & My Girlfriends -2013). Inspite of being predominantly a belly laughter and wholesome entertainer, the film reflects a real ‘girlie’ movie, a flick that explores the psyche and unique domain of feminine youth. It depicts three girls— Sreemoyee (Swastika Mukherjee), Preenita (Raima Sen), and Rhea (Parno Mitra) finding their love and happiness amongst their friendship. The raw slangs that they frequently utter, used to be always conceived as a complete “no” in an extremely prohibitive patriarchal grasp of the society. In an entertainer mould, Bhaumik deliberately showed the rawness, the freedom of feminity and the same being expressed extremely in a female domain.
Pinkfloor expressed third wave as – “It’s possible to have push-up bra and a brain at the same time”.[ix] In a cue, Mainak Bhaumik’s girls lead their happy lives together in whichever way they want, dressing for party and clubs. It again compels us to bring back the idea of “body image” here. Time and again this issue rises up as it is significant in the third wave which shows that women are sick and tired of being ”perfect”, to keep a decorated smile on their faces. Bhaumik here represents the women in a way where we should look at them from “dispassionate point of view and not as mere pretty faces” as Bhaumik told PTI during the trailer launch of the movie.[x] He gives a subtle taste of “Sex And The City” representing group of women, contemporary womanhood and sexual freedom with the similar bond, like the women group of Sex And The City.[xi]
When women connect with women, the bond is deeper and it expresses emphatically in films like Aparna Sen’s “Paromitar Ekdin (“A day for Paromita”-2000). Sen has not failed to reveal an extremely feminine domain and gaze, while portraying the bond between Paromita (Rituparna Sengupta) and Sanaka (Aparna Sen). The scenes of intimacy like, Paromita applying a face pack on Sanaka’s face or, the two women bathing together, touching each other, are the happiest moments in Sanaka’s life. Many viewers have even identified shades of ‘lesbian’ undertone in Paromoita & Sanaka’s togetherness. It is important to point out the difference of the kind of bonds, between Sen’s Paromitar Ekdin and Bhaumik’s Ami Aar Amar Girlfriends. “Paromitar akdin” reflects a bond between two women, between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, but revealed in deep seated patriarchal clutches. On the contrary , “Ami Aar Amar Girlfriends “ reflects the bond amongst three young girls , doing what not, enjoying and sharing their moments reveals joyfully in essentially a Female domain , an exclusive domain may be , which we are yet to see in Bengal at large. Let us recall Martha Rampton’s version: “The “grrls”of third wave have stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy”.[xii]
The tilting and inclination towards the third wave has evolved over the years. As a process of evolution, over the years, not only “body image”, but also the “body work” has been revealing in the celluloid. Rituparno Ghosh revealed such a “body work” in Antarmahal (The Views of Inner Chamber -2005), portraying Mahamaya’s sexual use of her body to challenge the male dominance. Mahamaya (Rupa Ganguly) strategically uses her body in a sexualised manner that weakens the domination and exploitation of Jasomoti (Soha Ali Khan) by Bhubaneshwar (Jackie Shroff). Female sexual desires and entitlements have always taken a back seat in the pre third wave patriarchal societies like in Benagal, or in India at large. Female sexuality has always been confined within the boundaries of home, husband and family. However, Ghosh represented Mahamaya’s “body work” that becomes empowering as female ‘sex’, rescued from the patriarchal grasp.[xiii]
If we come a little beyond the scenes of Bengal, at a national plane, we have a compulsion of remembering Shyam Benegal’s “Bhumika” (The Roles-1977). This significant movie has a seed of today’s feminist voices of Bengal. In “Bhumika”, we see Usha (Smita Patil), the protagonist of the film, to chase for her choices and we see her continually shifting from one role to another. For her choices, she had to leave her husband, however, only to be rescued by him at the end, which, in today’s sensibilities, may sound a little compromising. However, keeping aside the debatable last phase of Usha’s long journey, which is poetic and ambivalent enough on its own artistic merit Bhumika depicted a “raw”, yet subtle cry for a choice of feminism.
While juxtaposed to “Bhumika”, Sen’s much later work “Iti Mrinalini” (2011) may echo a resemblance. However, the underlying difference lies in the way of taking their decisions. Usha rejected her husband Keshav, even her lover Rajan, but also opted to be rescued by Keshav in the finale. In contrast, Mrinalini opted for a suicide to end her life planning to write a suicide note. This perhaps makes her weaker than Usha[xiv] and arguably a little melodramatic as a work of cinema. Nevertheless, if we link Mrinalini to the third wave feminism, her suicidal choice may sound assertive and powerful, with a message of choice. However, the third wave exhibits not only choice but, rather a deep respect for pluralism and self-determination.[xv]
In a lighter and witty oeuvre, Aprna Sen touches the third wave sensibilities again in her “Goynar Baksho” (The Jewellery Box-2013). One of the the central characters in Goynar Baksho is Pishima (Moushumi Chatterjee), who portrays the role of a child widow. She vehemently guards her box of jewels even after death. In Pishima, Sen blends the fiery expression of suppressed sexuality and celebration of woman entitlement together. There is a scene, where Pishima’s ghost asks her grand-daughter, Chaitali (Srabonti), to join her in for smoking. During conversation between the widow and the young girl, a beautiful juxtaposition, where we see Pishima drawing her hookah and Chaitali striking a matchstick to light a cigarette. Immediately it bridges two generations of womanhood and celebrates it.[xvi] With the changing position of society from Pishima to Chaitali, the lineage continues and it reminds us of the bonding between Sanaka and Paromita. We hear Pishima saying -“A husband is boring like everyday clothes, but a stranger lover is like expensive saree”. Pishima’s suppressed sexuality gets so clear reminding that sexual entitlement is a central part of women’s liberation.[xvii]
For a national audience, a film like The Dirty Picture (2011) shows Silk as a sex symbol, the boldness with cleavage in Vidya Balan doing complete justice for her choice. On the other hand, in the same year, in Bengal, Sen’s Mrinalini makes her choice to lead her life revolving around different men and relationships. Recent significant additions in Bollywood are flims like Queen, where a woman again has shown her entitlement, choice and preferred to remain single at the end. However, in variation of themes and numbers, in the context of third wave feminism , Bengali cinema has proved to be a significant exemplar. Third wave has also broadened the scope of feminism to include the voices of lesbians. This manifests in the fims like Subrata Sen’s Neel Nirjane (2003) which shows a permissive lesbianism through Ria (Raima Sen) and Mou (Mou Sultana) in portraying the psychological exploration of the lesbians.To name a few more – Koyekti Meyer Galpo(2012), Chhayey Chuti (2009), Teen Kanya(2012), Samo- The Equals have the same lesbian themes .[xviii]
The shifting identities of women have been evolving through the work of different Bengali directors from times of Ray, Sen and Ghatak culminating in the third wave connotations of today. It flaps the wings through myriads of characters, dialogues, make-up, costumes, their choice of slangs, and simultaneously, makes a scathing attack on patriarchy. It has come a long way from “Doll’s house” or say , here in Bengal , from the times of Tagore’s “Stree’r patra” (Wife’s letter).The question looms large , whether the changing face of women and their sensibilities, as manifested in today’s Bengali Cinema , is a strong reflection of globalization . Is the globalization casting shadow, on the Bengali identity even in Bengal?
[i] Macdonald, Alison, “Real and Imagined Women: A Feminist Reading of Rituparno Ghosh”, Working Paper No.03/2009, Department of Anthropology 14 Taviton Street, London WCH1H0BW, U.K.
[ii] http://www.thirdwavefoundation.org/about-us/history/ retrieved on 19/10/2014
[iii] http://fournineone.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/body-image.pdf , retrieved on 18/10/2014
[iv] http://saayan.blogspot.in/2006/07/shunyo-e-buke-empty-canvas-in-english.html, retrieved on 19/10/2014
[vi] Macdonald, Alison, “Real and Imagined Women: A Feminist Reading of Rituparno Ghosh”, Working Paper No.03/2009, Department of Anthropology 14 Taviton Street, London WCH1H0BW, U.K.
[ix]” Rampton, Martha,“Three Waves of Feminism
[x] http://ibnlive.in.com/news/ami-aar-amar-girlfriends-indias-first-chick-film/382892-8-73.html, retrieved on 17/10/2014
[xi] Henry, Astrid. “Orgasms and empowerment: Sex and the City and the third wave feminism.” Reading Sex and the City. Ed. Kim Akass and Janet Mccabe. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. New York: NY, 2004, pp.65-83.
[xii] Rampton, Martha,“Three Waves of Feminism
[xiii] Macdonald, Alison, “Real and Imagined Women: A Feminist Reading of Rituparno Ghosh”, Working Paper No.03/2009, Department of Anthropology 14 Taviton Street, London WCH1H0BW, U.K.
[xiv] http://amitava-nag.blogspot.in/2013/04/the-heroine-from-bhumika-to-iti.html, retrieved on 18/10/2014
[xv] R.Claire Snyder Hall, “Third Wave Feminism and Defence of Choice”, in “Perspectives on Politics / Volume 8 / Issue 01 / March 2010, pp 255-261
[xvi] “The Times Of India”, April 17, 2013
[xvii] http://femlegaltheory.blogspot.in/2010/11/sexual-pleasure-and-third-wave.html retrieved on 20/10/2014
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