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‘Charulata’, ‘Mahanagar’ and Two Epochs of the New Woman in Bengal

By Madhubrata Bhattacharyya

The vision of Charulata, raising her binoculars to her eyes for a glimpse at the world outside, will be one perhaps permanently etched into Bengali cinematic memory. She stands at the window of her husband’s palatial nineteenth century house, holding her binoculars and sometimes a book, swathed in the saris and elaborate puff-sleeved blouses so typical to elite Calcutta women of her era. Her husband is a bearded, smartly attired member of genteel Bengali society. He runs a newspaper, The Sentinel, where he is dissident but not disloyal to the British Empire. He is more admiring of Gladstone and Macaulay than he is of Shakespeare. He admires the liberal party in Britain, and Raja Rammohan Roy closer home. He is the perfect symbol of a new Bengali bhadralok, the product of the Bengali Renaissance, and Charulata is his perfect counterpart. She is intelligent enough to provide him companionship, as she paces through the house reading the works of Tagore and of Bankimchandra, but she does not pose an intellectual threat to him. He resolves that he will explain to her in entirety the matter of politics. Charulata writes, discarding balls of crumpled paper upon the floor in quick succession before she finally stumbles upon inspiration-memories of her childhood at a village, a far cry from the cloistered existence she inhabits as an adult. Her husband is appreciative of his wife’s literary skills, while he is dismissive of such affectations in men. The literary is inferior, he believes, to the factual and the political, and perhaps so, it befits women. Charulata ruptures this hierarchy with a new editorial venture she suggests – one where his political (and English) area of interest will find space with her literary (and Bengali) interests. Her husband is elated by the idea but proceeds almost immediately to exclude her from it. Charulata reinstates herself into this hypothetical space with a gentle verbal reminder of her intended participation.

Her assertion comes off as subversive and egalitarian. A character far from verbose, she is remarkably emphatic when she speaks. Her statement resonates, also, with one made by the female lead of another Ray film – Arati of Mahanagar. Here, Arati finally feels reunited with her husband when misfortune places them at equilibrium. They are both out of employment and fading into the cityscape. Arati finds hope in this: in the sprawling city that is the “mahanagar”, surely either of them would find employment. Or, her husband adds, maybe they both would. The post-independence Calcutta of this film resonates with the urbanism of European modernist imaginations, and is a perfect backdrop for an examination of a new femininity, set to motion by a complex process of modernization. Arati takes to the workspace as a salesgirl on the streets of the city under financial duress. Her husband is wary of an attractive woman stepping out to the workforce – the public domain, but is compelled to do so. That his wife has had to step out to work reflects poorly on the husband, pointing thus to a weakened masculinity. In the public realm, Arati discovers a new femininity, finding a community of women, and befriending a certain Anglo-Indian girl who introduces her to the decadence of lipsticks and sunglasses.

Charulata (1964) and Mahangar (1963) are both films centering on striking female characters. They are both predicated upon instances of ruptured domesticity. Temporally disparate in their settings as they may be, they both represent a time when traditional ideals of femininity are undergoing transformation. However, unlike popular discourse that would place the brunt of this disrupted domesticity upon women – particularly, the modernized “New” Woman – Ray depicts the complex social processes that lead to such a change. Through the characters of Charulata and Arati, one can trace evolving ideas of the New Woman in India. One can see, also, the contradictions underlying the conditions that gave rise to this New Woman, a contradiction embedded in every ideal of modular womanhood that is also framed as emancipatory. Ultimately, it is the world, through its set of public and private institutions, domestic and professional, that ends up failing woman. There is, also, a novelty, a freshness to these women that is celebrated – a resolute vicissitude that endures, and an assertion of authenticity that trumps the elaborate artifices they are compelled to assume for survival’s sake.

The idea of the new woman in India arose in colonial times, and largely as a reaction to Western criticism of the existing situation. This was a time when child marriage was rampant, and so was Sati. The western gaze framed the victimized oriental woman as one to be saved, and interestingly enough, saw the oppressive oriental man as a figure of diminished masculinity. A series of social reforms were set to motion. The ensuing figure, the new woman, was one defined largely in relation to domesticity. This was a Ruskin-esque notion, an educated woman would emerge, one fitted, by her education to be a better mother and wife. In India, however, the domestic space was organized differently, and a true woman’s education would fit her to be better at a wide variety of domestic roles – not only a better wife and mother, but also daughter, or sister-in-law. The anxieties expressed around this new woman were the ones surrounding domestic roles also – popular prejudice popularised the myth that educated women would bring about their husband’s death. Even interpreted less than literally, it was evident that the central fear was the collapse of the authority of the husband. So far, the enforced ignorance of women was the scaffolding upon which bhadralok Bengali identity had been consolidated.

One can debate the extent to which this project of new womanhood was an upper class, upper caste phenomenon. Work on women’s empowerment has never been limited to that by privileged men, especially not in India. Yet it is these reformers whom history is kindest in awarding visibility to. By far the most iconic image of the New Woman in Bengal was that of the Anglicised upper class woman, akin to those of the Tagore household. A great deal of the issues addressed by the project of this new womanhood concerned issues of upper caste women alone, for their families were perhaps the most ruthless in dealing with their own. A lower caste woman would not be pushed into her husband’s funeral pyre, but she would be subjected to economic, social and sexual exploitation at the hands of upper class-caste families. The most acceptable image of the New Woman, too, would be that framed by a Brahminical male gaze. Co-option is not a process that has died out-as airbrushed, size zero celebrities on magazine covers, the message of feminism emblazoned upon them, would serve to remind us. That gender interacts with class, and any project addressing one is incomplete without the other, also means that issues concerning women of relative privilege will draw more concern. Often, the concern is the desire of co-option, by the benevolent patriarchal savior.

An aspirational image of the New Woman of the West was that of a privileged subject, as represented in works by the likes of Henry James. Yet, the evolving reality for women was not restricted to the aristocratic, modular New Woman. Increased social mobility, literacy and instances of women empowerment would generate considerable anxieties around, or fantasies of disrupted domesticity in England – Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)  and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) being representative of both, respectively.

That evolving ideals of womanhood would continue to be defined against domesticity is unsurprising enough, given that womanhood, itself has so long been defined in relation to domesticity. Ever since the binary split of the public/professional and the private/domestic occasioned by the Industrial Revolution, the latter has been devalued by capitalistic society. With women retained in this devalued sphere, the spatialisation of gender roles has been central to the suppression of womanhood.

The fantasy of the woman who has it all, who can balance her professional and domestic roles, thus perfectly straddling the division line between the private and the public, is perhaps the latest in line of numerous, evolving images of the new, emancipated women. Such images largely put the onus of emancipation upon women, ignoring the material roots of female oppression that need to be addressed. Popular discourse will frequently emphasise what women can do to strike a “balance”, or the most effective “choice” they can make between the domestic and the professional. Frequently, the neglect of personal lives, and the domestic space will be grieved as the cost of women’s increasing participation in public, professional lives. This is a trope Tagore repeatedly subverts. In Ghare Baire (The Home and The World, 1916), as in Noshto Nir (The Broken Nest, 1901), upon which Ray’s Charulata is based, it is pointed out that the participation of men in public, political spaces often comes at the cost of hypocrisy in, or neglect of, the domestic space.

Charulata was also called, The Lonely Wife. Her loneliness is the loneliness of a woman in little control of her own life, loved but loved not as an equal full human. It is, the story suggests, her husband’s neglect of her for his newspaper that pushes her to the arms of her brother-in-law. The problem, however, goes deeper – it is an era when women were married off very young to men determined by their families. In addition, as the film overtly makes clear, both men and women married for material benefit. When a woman is reduced to a trophy and a role fulfiller, she is, simultaneously, stripped of agency and personhood. Charulata is cloistered, but she finds immense pleasure in what she experiences of the world beyond. Her rebellion is one of emotion – her most overt act of infidelity, as witnessed by her husband, is her sobbing into a bed, crying for her beloved after his departure. Her devastation plays out in a firmly domestic setting, and with it, it is domesticity itself, as the title points out, which is devastated. The sprawling home almost assumes personhood of its own – through the empty room the brother-in-law leaves behind and later through the storm that seems to threaten to break in through the window, the devastation of the domestic placidity is reified.

Charulata is a lady of leisure, though the conventional housewifely activities do not hold her interest. She appears as a figure of solitary femininity, finding no community whatsoever. She occupies class privilege, but not that of caste, and perhaps her wealth is only acquired through marriage, a union she is unhappy in. She is the archetypal elite New Woman, who has sensibility and intellect but little chance to put either to use. While Charulata is a brilliant portrayal of such womanhood, it is important to remember that, in her time and space, even such unhappiness would be one bought by material privilege.

The society of Charulata is one where a complete severance of the private, domestic and the public, professional has not yet occurred. Her husband runs his paper from home, and her brother-in-law finds opportunities for further education and subsequent employment through a marriage proposal. All of them are engaged with the written word, but the men are boisterous about their interest, Charulata largely reserved. The disparaging, and erasure of female intellectual labour, is driven in. It is evident that there is more that causes Charulata’s loneliness than a familial love triangle – it can be traced, instead, to a deep set alienation.

It is the Madhabi Mukherjee of Charulata who appears again in Mahanagar, but in a vastly different setting. The Arati of Mahanagar embodies another pivotal moment at the evolution of a new womanhood in India. As Arati weeps over having to leave her little son before she heads to work, Arati embodies a conflict that characterizes discourses on the modern woman even today. The discourse of choice between, or of balancing the domestic and the professional remains important today, but the notion of choice in Mahanagar is entertained only to be dismissed altogether. Arati’s decision to go out and work may have reduced her mother-in-law to tears, but she did not make a choice so much so as act upon necessity. The absurdity of any notion of choice goes beyond the condition upon which Arati steps into the workforce – she will quit as soon as her husband finds additional employment. She is told one evening by her family that she must quit, the next day she is told that her husband has lost his job and she must not. It is the labour of the kind done outside the domestic space, the economically viable kind that the family is in dire need of. All the while, the figure of the mother-in-law, silently laboring through the house, persists, largely unnoticed. When Arati reaches out to her, she asserts that she identifies her needs and her pleasure with her husband’s. The completely domestic woman loses all identity, but the working woman becomes the focus of, at once, anxiety, horror, resentment, and respect. While the public space of work offers much, even besides an income, it does not surface as a liberating alternative to the patriarchal trappings of the domestic space. In fact, Arati ultimately quits it over an overt act of patriarchal discrimination, the firing of her Anglo-Indian friend over a leave of absence taken due to ill-health, as their employer suggests she was engaged in some immoral kind of “fun” instead.

Quitting her place of employment is no viable choice for Arati – it simply leaves her family without any source of income whatsoever. Neither Arati nor Charulata have resolutions to their stories or happy endings. Such a happy ending would be, after all, only an adjustment to fundamentally unequal, unjust institutions. Arati and Charulata both face the fate of non-conforming women under patriarchy, and this is not a problem that can be reckoned with simply as individuals. They point to pitfalls in modular images of new womanhood, ones informed by feudal or capitalistic trappings. So Charulata can read and cultivate imagination and intellect, but is expected to conform to a life of staid domesticity with a husband who does not engage with her as an equal. So Arati is expected to be “smart” on the streets and use her persuasive skills to sell things, but she cannot have an opinion, or assert an injustice to her employer. She is, he reminds her, on the wrong side of the table.

But Arati and Charulata occupy a distinct novelty – they envision, if only in imagination, a space of liberation and equality for women. It is not a space either of them has experienced, but it is an enduring vision. It is this vision that makes Mahangar and Charulata such enduring tributes to womanhood, old or new. In the face of uncertainty, Arati finds comfort in the gamut of possibilities before her. The women of Mahanagar and Charulata do not get closure, but they open up a flurry of possibilities away from the pitfalls of both domestic and professional spaces. It is these visions of complete liberation that they put forward, if only momentarily and imaginatively, that render them truly novel.

Madhubrata Bhattacharyya
is a post graduate student of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She can be found on Instagram as @felinist_ and blogs at Madhubrata likes going on feminist rants and watching cat videos on the Internet.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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