Pondering over Birsa Dasgupta’s ‘Crisscross’
By Priyanka Chatterjee
When ideas of a concept cannot be strung together by a single thread, it appears problematic with several lose strands jangling down, unknotted. Nothing can be singly concluded from a varied understanding that goes crisscross. When the idea of ‘new woman’ is to be mapped in a modern-day setting, we are faced with thoughts that run parallel with no attempt to meet. There is always the risk of falling into the trap of history which talks of a past of suppression and oppression that has become so systematically ingrained that it cannot be undone. Trying to claim the ‘new’, women are always confronted by the threatening silhouette of the ‘old’, which devises alternative modes of operation to become assimilated. Is discarding the old an only way to acclaim newness? Is it possible to leave the old behind, against which we define the new? How then is the ‘new woman’ to be seen? What could form her in the socio-cultural milieu of India? Does she exist, at all?
As ideas were becoming elusive on the topic, and I was constantly being unnerved by the contradictions around me, yet hoping that I could grasp something, something fragmentary, I was browsing songs on YouTube on a lazy Saturday morning at home. Can this be the idea of a ‘new woman’ – sitting on a sofa, relaxed, oblivious of housework, using the latest technology to appease oneself? Smacking of privilege, elitism, urbanism, and thus, quite a contradiction to the traditional idea of a home-maker, this idea/arrangement is just one side of the coin. How else can I gauge new-ness in women, then? Does contradicting tradition stand as qualifier for newness? But then, is the idea of ‘new woman’ free from the vestiges of tradition completely? Lost in thought, I came upon a promotional video of a movie that claimed to present the story of new age women in a metro. A perfect setting for explicating progress, empowerment, emancipation, which has become the ubiquitous vocabulary of understanding ‘new woman’ in all her urbanity. Although the storyline showed no promise and seemed predictable, I decided to go for it because much as I needed something to write on, I was more allured by the prospect of sitting alone in a sparsely crowded air conditioned movie hall, sipping my coffee, while watching a movie, spending my own-time away from all whom I love to be with but not always, self-pampering by a clichéd urban, consumerist sense of individuality.
The stage was set, Maa was told I would be off to ‘work’ which involved entertainment and relaxation, while she would have to take care of the home-front on my behalf for some time. While empowerment has liberated most of us urban women, it has taken our mothers hostages who have taken in this attack on their independence through unwarranted, unpaid baby-sitting jobs with panache, often making us realise our celebration of independence is conditional, in fact subservient to traditional understandings of roles and practices. But these mothers could definitely be the ‘new woman’ in ways they accommodate the new demands of society, mostly with respect to their ambitious daughters for whom they aspire every victory. They understand and encourage the nuances of work and are the most important pillars behind the success of most ‘new woman’. Of course, this understanding comes neither as consolatory, given the politics of desire and coercion at work implicitly or explicitly, nor tries to gloss over the different scenarios of struggle. Although it cannot be a generalised explanation, it definitely has particular resonances.
Watching movies all by myself is quite an enjoyment for me, whether at home or in these new-age movie halls which profess to make you ‘live the experience’. Friends often ask me, how I manage to watch movies alone when going for movies with friends/family tops the chart as means of relaxation or celebration. I have often said, I like to do it alone; although I should have said that these halls on the basis of creating exclusionary experience, that involves cutting out people from low strata of society who are invariably marked as violent, unfriendly bodies to those, especially women, who can afford to occupy these spaces, I feel secure and can enjoy a movie, I can give impetus to my liking of being entertained all by myself. Yes, we have naturalised processes of discrimination too successfully to do away them so easily! The same can be said when such practices are used against women who are favourite targets of all forms of discrimination. How easily these malls gloss over the fact that there may be subtle ways of making a woman feel insecure or even vulnerable by men who by virtue of their status, class or position occupy these spaces and can become invisible offenders. This could be the case of women too who otherise some women to pander their sense of morality. These are the invisible offenders (and inviting!?) who through physically harmless acts like staring or passing remarks can become undetectable threats to women like me who loiter alone. But then, it is my right to loiter alone, and I will not leave a space just because it makes me insecure, so I have learnt to ignore them, like many of us do, often silently and with a cold indifference, bottling up our energy for a more important fights, somewhat helplessly. The space needs to change itself, just as people who occupy these spaces need to change themselves. But that seems quite an impossible task given the toilet usage habits, the poor common sense that reflects itself in the movie watching habits, the filth left behind near the seats and, of course, and the coarseness with which the staffs are dealt with.
Thus in such an exclusionist space, in a sparsely populated hall, just as Bengali women-oriented films that do not promise body-shows, should be, I found myself comfortably seated within a couple of hours of conceiving the plan. I realised to my dismay how I have accustomed myself to create the celebratory web of individuality when this individuality is pre-conditioned by a lot of factors, one of which is isolation (a patriarchal frame of understanding successful women?!). As the couple seated beside me became an irritation with their phones abuzz and their feet pulled up on the front seat, I moved down to a front row with myself and the coffee-cup to watch Birsa Dasgupta’s Crisscross (2018).
The movie begins with a usual shot of Kolkata busyness – swarms of people moving to and fro, business on their minds, an everyday metro scene. Amidst such hullabaloo, a group of young musicians are arguing over whether they should sing in the middle of the street, not only to become a diversion, but to also attract interested investors for their art. While they start playing, the movie starts rolling to bring in the shots that depict one day in the lives of protagonists in an urban milieu – Ira, a magazine photographer; Meher, a side-cast in films; Miss Sen, a successful woman entrepreneur; Suzy, a web designer; and Rupa, a home-maker, or more precisely a house-wife (married to a house). While Miss Sen appears in all her opulence, with a dismissive, cold gaze (side-effects and signature of successful women! Success needs to get out of coldness to be more humanitarian, my quick aside!), Ira and Meher are busy trying to make success happen by their hard work, which is extra sauced by family commitments and bad luck. Suzy has a meek appearance except when she is working on her easel with her paint brush. A single mother, she is, therefore, considered available and becomes easy target of the overtures of a group of louts right outside her home, the para dadas, who think it to be their prerogative to while away their time playing carom and teasing women. Rupa is negotiating her life with an abusive mother-in-law, lazy, workless, prejudiced husband, and a rogue brother-in-law. All at their own work in the spaces they are, these women continuously battle for what they believe without giving in to their trials, the definite mark of ‘new woman’ in a modern day, which curiously point out that when women place demands on society which are far from conventional, their struggle is supposed to be ceaseless.
Dwindling within the familiar and unfamiliar vibes that I got while watching these characters, I realised that in a woman character the public and private seem to coalesce to make her exciting, something that is not always necessary for a male character to become interesting. It is as if their public presence needs to be validated by the needs of their private lives. Again their public struggles can be accentuated by directing the focus on their private conflicts making them an appropriate victim of society which in turn should add an extra oomph to their victory against all odds.
Going by the cliché, the movie does it all. Ira is shown battling her case of being a successful photographer in a demanding job and a commitment-elusive partner in a live-in relationship. In what has been misconstrued as smacking of women empowerment, the traditional roles are reversed here, suggesting that when women who should have been at home and working in the kitchen are given the chance to fly, someone else must compensate for her absence. In this case it is Ira’s live-in partner who maintains a low profile as he manages the house and cooks (so much for reversing the cliché!). Ira’s ambition robs her off rationality, as her boyfriend discerns, when she is made to realise all that he has done for her (like playing her proxy at home!), she has invariably failed to live up to the commitment of marriage of which long term live-in relationships can only become short-term substitution in middle class Bengali Hindu families. In fact, her taste buds also seem to have been damaged by her ambition as she fails to recognise hilsa while eating it, a fish which is famous among fish-eating Bengalis for its distinct taste and smell. Amidst so much topsy-turvy she is given a twenty-four hours deadline to work out two life-changing glitches – marriage and/or promotion via a new project featuring ‘Women in New-age Kolkata’. While she sets out for the day to accomplish her commitment at work, the commitment at home comes to her as periodic reminders through livid phone calls from her partner or her mother, who constantly reminds her what a woman should want. With an ardent wish to balance her work and family life, the eternal challenge for the working women as set up by the patriarchal framework that governs society, she interviews Miss Sen as a ‘new woman’ epitomized by her economic success.
Educational upliftment and economic independence are conventionally considered as vehicles for women empowerment, which seem to limit the notion of empowerment strangely. However, Miss Sen questions Ira why the woman who wakes up early morning to pack lunch for her child, who drops and picks her child at school each day braving the ruthless crowds, who looks after her child’s education despite all, couldn’t be the ‘new woman’ also? Is she not accomplished enough in doing her duties without a slip? It puts Ira to thinking, while the frame cuts and projects the life of such a woman in Rupa, who however is not a success at home-making.
A middle class Bengali housewife Rupa appears disposable right from the beginning. While she is astonished when a man gropes her in the market, she remains silent, like most women, who have surrendered to routine ignominy by the patriarchal gestures of society which render them unsafe. She remains silent amidst the constant blaming by her mother-in-law for being infertile while she serves medicines to her impotent husband, and is constantly tortured by the sexual overtures of her brother-in-law. She, like her incessant coughing which she has ignored until now, ignores all that happens to her, due to what seems as surrendering to her fate, instead of confronting it. Most women do not have the means of confronting the oppression and cruelties that are constantly lavished on them just because they often do not have an alternative to the life they are living. They cannot help but continue to live in these cages often nursing dreams for a better day, dreams that will never see reality, perhaps. Rupa finds her sunshine in her dream to wear a glamourous red dress, and to go on a holiday with her husband who refuses to touch her. Life goes on as she risks her every day with the hope for a better tomorrow.
Meher is fighting for her identity as an artist in the exploitative, male dominated world of films. She is the sole earning member of a family with a differently-abled brother. She lets her hopes fly high through economic instability, does not compromise with her integrity and commitment to self, and is seen on roads most of the time, trying to reach a destination. Yet, all this struggle does not turn her bitter as she does not fear travelling down the road not taken and being jilted constantly by fate and by men.
Suzy paints and designs ads, without much luck of economic gain, of course. She is a single mother who left her drug-addict worthless husband in order to give her child a healthy future. However, she struggles economically, besides being harassed physically and mentally by a group of louts. When her son’s school gives her an ultimatum regarding payment of fees, she is listless as to what she could do. She lands up in Miss Sen’s office for payment of the ad she had designed for her but is rebuked and sent off.
Miss Sen is styled as the ‘new woman’ in modern age metro life – beautiful, stylish, successful, arrogant, blunt. Her skills have taken her to the top from where she seems to have no inkling of struggles – as Meher and Suzy realise from their personal encounter with her. However, it is a façade she has to adorn to cover up the bruises left by a broken marriage and a dead child. The home front is seen to be in shambles for all these women who move out of their homes to claim the public spaces as their own. Miss Sen (she is not called by her first name, nor subtitled Mrs.) distances herself from emotions as she feels incompetent to deal with it. Does success make her lonely as if the trope that is often used against women who wish to move out of their designated spaces within their homes? She also realises the lack of someone to speak to, the lack of love from/for someone dear, but she repels from giving herself another chance. Now her business too is crumbling down and she feels lonely more than ever. She has dearly paid for her ambition but it seems to crack her up.
How do these women react when pushed to the wall?
While a marriage commitment alone can save the relationship at home for Ira, she roams about in the street with a camera unable to find a suitable subject, projecting quite well the indecision in the moment for an upfront new woman who would want both ends of her life sorted. It is when she spots Rupa, standing at the edge of a building, ready to end her loveless life, that Ira realises what she wants the most in that moment. Of course, a momentary decision can be crucial for a career that does not cater to upheavals in the private life, but she seems ready to accept a setback somewhere to prune out some of the rough edges of her life. Will the society present her with any choice either? Although other characters keep consulting her boyfriend about giving her more space, he is confused – how much more space? Of course, there are limits to the extend society can confer breathing space for women as if she is an intruder in the space that she is not entitled to, isn’t it?!
Meher, standing on the edge of a financial crisis, and unable to compromise on her work ethics, embarks upon the road to look for her options although achieves nothing by her incessant local bus and auto travelling. If only the struggles for women could be limited to adjusting in cringy spaces in these local transport, leave aside the continuous possibility of groping and other forms of sexual harassment that lurk within these spaces! While she does not compromise on her integrity, she also has nothing against those woman who do – all have choices while some have no options. She decides to allow herself to live with the hope for a next day, as most women are bound to do, provided the constraints that never seem to be lifted from them.
Suzy is sandwiched by the pressures of raising a child, lack of job and a bunch of predators lurking outside her home. Attacked by them on her way to look for a new job, she is unnerved. But she quickly gathers herself and sets out again through the same colony refusing to leave the place. Rupa is diagnosed with Stage III cancer, an outcome of all round neglect. She realises how she has been going on like a furniture of the house, a body whom anyone can abuse, both by giving and withdrawing love/lust. She thus breaks out of the claustrophobia, giving everyone at home a piece of her mind, and renouncing hope that she once nurtured about her home. She spends one day as she wants, in a way compensating for not loving herself enough. She buys the coveted red dress, drinks at a bar, and then realising she has no more love left to heal herself decides to commit suicide. She is saved by Ira, whom she in turns saves, being bound by what they realise is sympathy and love for each other that emanated from the moments of crisis that they are facing in their own lives. Miss Sen severs all ties with her past and walks out of her bankrupt office with the photograph of her child bound to her empty bosom. She breaks open from her feigned coarseness that would shield her from emotions and realises she needs to give in to her heart’s desire –companionship.
Companionship, love, emotion are terms that have been made to embellish what came to be understood and undermined as feminine vocabulary and the only resort of the females, while for men mard ko dard nehi hota says it all. Thus, while men can remain emotionally unavailable and unperturbed, women are naturally well-equipped to handle emotions with finesse. Since emotions stand opposed to reason, and reason is important for creativity. Again if emotions are to be allowed to dominate feminine domains entirely, that would tend to become a reaffirmation of patriarchal understanding of womanhood. Hence this entire emotional goof up that the film projects destroys its ability to create possibilities of newer understandings of life for both men and women. In fact, it projects the inability that is often shared by representative media where empowerment of women remain merely symbolical. In this world of feel-good feminism, the right of a woman to stop and choose remains suspended. The flaunting of fancy watches, rich dresses, salon styles, holidaying, partying women, girl gangs and sweet selfies, feminism often misses the mark to realise not all women can have a glamorous failure, not all women can have things sorted at the end of the day. These are not even representative of the lived realities that women face in their everyday lives, far away from the privileges these characters showcase.
The movie moves on and I desperately try to grasp at least one element in this modern day movie to carry back home and also may be to justify spending the money and time I had invested on it, leaving aside over-burdening Maa. Without any inkling of what future holds for them except for Meher and Suzy, who are incredibly lucky to find suitable work at the end of the day, they all head from different directions to the terrace party to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of a couple who decided to brave all odds to stay together. Yes, marriage can be celebratory if it is worked upon from both ends, which is certainly not the case among most couples who withstand the vagaries of marriage with alternative doses of compromise and adjustments, the scale always heavier on the women’s side. No one talks here of the usual trap that awaits women after marriage – balance although it is implied through gestures and comments that Ira would have to start anew as she chose to leave her consignment at work unfinished to show her commitment towards a relation that she has been living on with since quite some years now. For women to remain committed, a mark is required, the mark of being possessed. No, the film says nothing and I am perhaps reading a bit too much into it through my frustrated chances of locating the ‘new woman’ in what is supposed to be the modern, changed time. Even though life seems unsettled, the film ends on a note of promise, for a future that is unsure but would be taken up as it comes, through moments, as we make memories. May be the ‘new woman’ could be palpable in these moments, existing contingently, and evolving continuously but for the want of a setting, she remains elusive. The women characters in the movie are always undecided, as if for the new woman confusion comes as a congratulatory character, her contradictions making her more lively.
But at this moment they are all ‘home’, at rest from their struggles or may be investing time into their extended struggles. In this world of excess, anything that limits is a villain. ‘Home’ with its history of repression, especially for women, often becomes a space that is avoidable. Hence empowerment is sought outside home, outside the private, in the public, as the private reportedly supresses. But this makes us look away from the other side of home – its healing, nurturing and binding power. Notice that these adjectives again are considered feminine although within homely spaces it’s the family, comprising of male and female members, who can become agents of both emancipation and suppression. Home as a patriarchal space is rightfully criticised; but why forget the other nuances of home? Why not understand that one can find home there where one chooses to, with those one wants to? Of course, this cannot be the universal character of home from where cases of abuse and atrocities are abundantly reported. Yet, for many it also serves as a stop-over before embarking upon a new journey or as a resting space after a storm. These women head home, not to threaten the feminist cause but to prepare for a tomorrow while celebrating the win/loss of today. I feel emancipation does lie in this looking forward towards a tomorrow of imbalance where they would have to perform more than their male counterparts in every field to seek notice and recognition, where they would have to fight for their rights as their demands from both the private and the public domain have changed drastically over time and everyone has to accommodate them for what they are. May be this could be the ‘new woman’ – who un-dauntingly faces her today, extracts no promise from an uncertain future but decides to strive, to seek but not to yield. As I left the hall, I felt realisation had finally dawned on me. Moments later I realised yet again, its nuance is fragmented as ever, and there can be no final word, except that progress has been made, and one needs to take lessons from it.
Meanwhile Maa has extracted a concrete promise for indulging me – a choco-latte frappe with ice cream topping in CCD next weekend. A ‘new woman’ too!?
Photo: Devika Rani setting standards for Bengali women in the 1930s
Priyanka Chatterjee shuttles between her lives in Siliguri, where she lives, and Gangtok, where she works as a Research Scholar in the Department of English, School of Languages and Literatures, Sikkim University, Sikkim. She is striving to impact the everyday lives of herself and others by her sustained academic endeavours. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.