Reel Rumination: Who is the Indian Woman?

(So, there are some advantages of not emptying your inbox regularly, even though Google keeps threatening to brim over and drop dead. I found this old piece I’d written as a measly assignment in ACJ back in 2008, and I find myself quite surprised! Mostly because I don’t even remember the plotlines of Meghe Dhake Tara and Charulata, but even otherwise, this seems like I’ve put in some decent effort. A bit long, but do read and comment!)

Benedict Anderson, in his book, Imagined Communities talks of a nation that largely exists in the collective psyche of the members of that nation state. Indian nationalism, in the absence of pervading literacy, depended on the more popular forms of art and cinema to grow. And since visualization is essential to the imagined community, India began to be identified with the icon of the mother. So, as India strove to become independent and, later, was endorsed as the land of opportunities, India became Bharat Mata for the masses. In such a scenario, Indian cinema produced its own interpretations of the Indian woman, an identity highly contested.

Indian cinema emerged as a popular art form, as well as one of mass entertainment, at the same time that the idea of the independent Indian nation was being given serious thought and substance. As the democracy’s roots grew deeper, newer identities emerged. The colonial, and his sidekick, the Zamindar, were being pushed backstage by the new-found educated sophisticate and the Indian woman, who again was probably the most conflicted identity of all- existing or arising. While on the one hand she had to live up to the strength and valor she had been endowed with in the process of attaining an iconic status, on the other, she was also the site on which Nehruvian idealists were cultivating India’s image as a fast developing one.

Questions about who the Indian woman was in the emerging context had many answers. There came up a number of interpretations and representations in the cinema of the time. The greatest Indian auteurs of all time had something to contribute to this debate. This paper intends to look at three films in particular- Mother India (1957) by Mehboob Khan, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1960) and Meghe Dhake Tara (1960) by Ritwik Ghatak, all of which were stories about women of the time, but in different frames.

MeImagehboob Khan’s magnum opus, Mother India, was a colored rendition of his earlier movie, Aurat, which came out in 1941. Possibly in a bid to promote the story in front of a larger, more diversified audience, he retold the story, produced it in Eastman-colour format, and made it revolve around the Radha, the protagonist, played by Nargis. The movie tells the tale about this woman, who marries Raj Kapoor, and comes into a household which is completely under the financial grip of the landlord, Sukhilala. As she deals with more failure and abandonment by her husband, the viewer is witness to the transformation of this good homely bejeweled wife into a hard, driven survivor covering herself in the mitti of her land, because she loves and identifies deeply with it. Her two sons, Ram and Birju, are the two diametrically opposite strands of moderation and extremism that characterised  the Indian national movement. When, finally, she shoots her younger son in a bid to save society from imminent danger, she acquires the iconisation of Mother India, in both a religious and a nationalist sense.

The toil and sweat that goes into cultivation and growing a crop is in itself a character in the film, painted in the red and brown hues of earthiness. Mehboob uses the form of melodrama to acquaint the viewer with the exaggerated extent of suffering of this woman. He uses the archetypes of the evil landlord, the unrelenting mother-in-law, the sly uncle in addition to the lead characters in a bid to characterize the typical setting of rural India. “At its deepest level, Mother India is a study of culture in conflict with itself. Birju and mother represent headlong, near-suicidal rush to change an impossible situation, and the inner force of the system fighting back, trying to alter the system ‘peacefully’,” says Iqbal Masud. Finally, Mehboob endorses Nehruism in his reference to the Community Block Development Movement, which brings to the film a sense of resolution and opportunism.

In another tale of suffering, Ritwik Ghatak shows us the flip side of the coin- Meghe DhakeImage Tara is the story of Sita, a young working woman who is the sole bread earner in her family, her father having retired, one brother aspiring to become a musician and the other still in the process of completing his studies. But instead of being independent, which is the logical consequence for most of us in such a situation, Sita is oppressed nevertheless. Her mother does not want her to get married, lest their only source of survival be taken away, her younger brother intends to run away from the household as soon as possible, her older brother lives for dreams at the cost of pragmatism and her sister is disinterested in everything except finding a suitable boy to marry.

Sita ends up making the biggest sacrifices for the happiness of her family- first of love, then of her own mental health. Towards the end, when she has realized that her lover is now no longer hers, but is in love with her sister, and is walking away, the close up of her face as she feels trapped in her situation, and the crack of whiplash in the background, makes an effective visual depiction of her hopelessness. In the exaggerated portrayal of the lower classes, Ghatak is determined to alienate his audience, ensure that there is no sense of identification or empathy towards his pitiful protagonist, which was thought to be very important for the spectator to be able to criticize and participate.

ImageFinally, Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, based on Tagore’s novel, Nashta Neer, and set in 1859, tells a different tale of womanly woe- Charulata is a housewife in a rich Bengali household. Her husband is too involved in his newspaper and the politics of the time to pay her much attention. She is left to her own devices and is too intelligent to be content with playing cards and enjoying ice cream, like her sister-in-law. A fan of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s work, she also represented Nabina or the ‘new woman’, in contrast to her sister-in-law, who was Prabina or the ‘old woman’. Charulata comes close to emotional betrayal when she grows an attachment for Amal, the cousin, and this the husband realizes only towards the end.

Satyajit Ray was a Realist artist- he believed in the deep focus technique and subtle initiation, and abhorred close ups or low angle shots, which meant iconisation. The movie is a pleasant concoction of music, scenery, emotions and characterization which is far from typical. Charulata’s situation is not a common one, especially in an India that was under British rule, or even after independence, when the largely rural landscape did not allow such financial and temporal liberty to women. But she did represent a small class of them, who were the unfortunate fortunates. As she attempts to while away time by looking out the windows through an opera glass, since she was restricted within the four walls of her house, the orchestrated on-screen and off-screen sounds allow the viewer to feel her loneliness, and when her husband walks away, absorbed in a book without paying her any attention, the authoritarian sound of his boots on the floor impress upon the audience her utter and complete desolation.

In all three films, we see the dilemmas that the Indian woman faced at the time, and we also see the problematisation that Indian society had in defining this Indian woman, and her boundaries of existence. While Ray explored the psyche of the Indian woman moving towards self- realization, Ghatak sought to unearth the loopholes in the grand Nehruvian plan. Mehboob manages to identify and place the Indian woman in the context of the nation, which in itself was visualized as a newly acquired bride, who had the powers of sustenance. Through both melodrama and realism, Indian cinema of the 50s and 60s, also known as humanist cinema, persevered in depicting the sorry state of the Indian woman.

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