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Breaking Free: Indian women in Satyajit Ray’s films

By Blanka Katarzyna Dżugaj

What can be fascinating in Satyajit Ray’s movies for a woman interested in gender studies in audiovisual arts and a resident of Eastern Europe? A visionary approach to the film technique, a perfect narrative, unique style, intuition? Absolutely, but most of all, an extraordinary understanding of the female psyche and courage in expressing female emotions, needs, and desires – the same features that the world today admires so much in the works of the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Years earlier, and in a different, much more patriarchal culture, Satyajit Ray not only showed a similar sensitivity, but also broke the tradition of representing a woman as an adorable kitten, most often only as an addition to the male protagonist, in commercial cinema. In his films, women were fully fledged heroines, endowed with a strong character and the courage to break conventions and overcome the barriers put before them by society. Many of them are the result of the director’s own thoughts and experiences, many sprung from literature that Satyajit Ray eagerly transferred to the big screen.

Indian culture is probably the only one in which the attitude towards women is characterized by such ambivalence: on the one hand, a woman is equated with the Great Goddess, and on the other hand, treated as a being completely subordinated to a man and whose sexuality should be subjected to social control. The reformers of the Bengal Renaissance era, including the Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, were the first to notice the need to change this situation. Rabindranath Tagore demanded, inter alia, general compulsory schooling for girls, abolition of the practice of purdah, the abolition of the custom of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, the right to remarry for widowed women, prohibition on child marriage, and polygamy.

It is worth noting, however, that postulating a change in the social status of women, Rabindranath Tagore referred to Western feminism of the first and second waves, accepting the theory of the existence of one essence of femininity, common to all women, for which he is today strongly criticized by feminist activists. According to the Nobel Prize winner, the woman was closer to the world surrounding her immediately, so home and family, male anxiety and the desire for great deeds were alien to her – in Western women who tried to go beyond the assigned role of the guardian of the home hearth, he saw creatures that had lost contact with their own nature.[1] However, I do not exclude the possibility that today Rabindranath Tagore would perceive the social role of women differently, something that filmmakers, surprisingly often treating his novels and stories as creative inspiration, seem to notice in his works.

Satyajit Ray, one of the most outstanding Indian filmmakers and co-creator of Bengali parallel cinema, used Tagore’s works as a creative inspiration twice – for the first time in 1964 with the film Charualata (The Lonely Wife in English), which was a screen adaptation of a short story Nastanir (The Broken Nest). The Bengali filmmaker was not afraid to face Tagore’s work, as he already had experience in film adaptation of literature, and neither did he shy away from attempting a “creative betrayal” of the literary prototype – his film, like the later picture Ghare Baire, is not so much an adaptation in the academic sense, but a dialogue with Rabindranath Tagore’s opinions and their creative reinterpretation, which – quite possibly – would have been done by the Nobel Prize winner himself today.

The protagonist of the film is Charulata, a young, beautiful, and educated woman who, as a girl, marries a much older man, Bhupati. Charulata’s husband is completely devoted to his work as a publisher and editor-in-chief, so he neglects his wife, who soon turns into a young woman, full of desires and needs. The cure for Charu’s loneliness is her brother-in-law, Amal, initially a teacher and master, and with time an irreplaceable friend. Her husband’s younger brother gives Charulata almost everything that her husband skimps on: interest, the possibility of intellectual development, but also the feeling of being needed as a wife.

Satyajit Ray had no doubts that in the story of that peculiar love triangle Rabindranath Tagore portrayed the relationship between himself and his beloved sister-in-law. It was obvious to him that Charulata was the literary alter ego of Kadambari Devi – the lonely muse of the young writer, full of romantic dreams. Creating aspiring artist Amal, the future Nobel Prize winner portrayed himself, while Bhupati bears the distinct features of his older brother, Jyotirindranath.

I watched The Lonely Wife several times, as part of my research work, but each time I was amazed by the director’s understanding of Charulata’s loneliness. Charu from the novel has become a symbol of Bengali women, seemingly happy, enjoying freedoms that their mothers did not know, but actually struggling with the loneliness imposed on them by society. Undoubtedly, the period of the Bengali Renaissance brought a significant improvement in the situation of women, primarily changing the perception of their position in relation to men. The reformers, however, stopped mid-step, on one hand giving women the tools of emancipation, but on the other hand not letting them out of the antar mahal. The woman was given the right to study, learn the English language, read both Indian and European literature, which was tantamount to learning about different social systems, lifestyles, and views on women’s existence. The broadening of their horizons and the increased self-awareness, however, did not go hand in hand with complete emancipation.

Ray emphasizes the loneliness of the protagonist in the first scene of the film, when a bored Charu runs from window to window, fascinated by the indifferent passers-by. Education in the field of literature gives her an idea of the world beyond the antar mahal, but the half-emancipation of Bengali society does not allow her to experience this reality on her own. In the next scene of the movie, Charulata goes out into the corridor through which Bhupati is walking at the same moment. Absorbed in reading a novel, Bhupati passes by his wife without being aware of her presence – he doesn’t even notice her when he stops for a moment to turn the page of the book. Charulata picks up the binoculars and observes her husband through the prism: he is close, yet so far. Satyajit Ray thus emphasizes the metaphorical distance between the spouses: they are physically extremely close to each other, but completely separated emotionally. Darius Cooper points out the masterful guidance of the camera in this scene: as Charu lowers the binoculars, the camera gradually moves away from her, instead of zooming in on her face, revealing the full scene with the entire silhouette of the woman visible. In this way, Ray emphasizes the alienation of Charu, lonely and overwhelmed by the splendor of a luxurious residence.[2] Satyajit Ray stressed the importance of Charulata’s gesture when she lowered the binoculars – in his opinion it expressed the woman’s utter helplessness in the face of Bhupati’s indifference: she lowers the binoculars with a gesture saying: “What can I do? If it’s that far away, I can’t bring it closer to me, binoculars won’t help.” It is hardly surprising that this scene has passed into the classics of Indian cinematography, and many later filmmakers, such as Rituparno Ghosh or Suman Mukhopadhyay, referred to it in their own works.

In a later scene, taking place in the garden, Satyajit Ray again uses the motif of the binoculars.  Charulata uses them to observe Amal as he writes, and her surroundings. She sees, among others, the neighbor’s maid holding a baby in her arms – the expression on Charulata’s face clearly shows that she feels the need to become a mother. In Tagore’s short story, the issue of motherhood wasn’t brought up, but it is easy to guess that Charulata’s childlessness may have been one of the causes of her apathy. Despite the modern approach to femininity and the role of women in society, a conviction that motherhood was the goal of female existence was still widespread in nineteenth-century India.  So Satyajit Ray went a step further than Tagore – his Charu could feel the sterility of her own life in two ways: as a childless woman and as a nabina unable to find fulfillment in life.

Satyajit Ray needed to show all the complicated emotions that Rabindranath Tagore expressed in words or placed between the lines. He went about this task with aplomb, skillfully using symbolism: the storm unleashed upon Amal’s arrival symbolizes the confusion that the man brings into the life of Charu, the flute on which Amal plays for his sister-in-law gives rise to connotations with the love of Radha and Krishna, Charulata’s disheveled hair in the moment when she triumphantly gives Amal a magazine with a story of her authorship, give her the appearance of the goddess Kali or Chamunda, and also fit into the erotic symbolism that Indian cinema eagerly reaches for, mainly from the masala movie trend, as well as betel leaves coloring the lips of Charu and Amal red – a color with strong erotic connotations.

Satyajit Ray shares with Rabindranath Tagore the tenderness and forbearance towards Charulata, even though marital infidelity was not socially accepted in India at that time (and still not today). In every minute of the film, you can see that the director understands Charulata’s dilemmas, resulting not only from her forbidden feelings for Amal, but also from the fact that her husband is a good, loving man: Charulata probably felt compassion for him and tried to repair their relationship. The husband took too long to realize that he himself was responsible for what had happened. This is why it is suggested at the end of the film that Bhupati and Charu will stay together, but it is too early for complete reconciliation.[3]

Satyajit Ray introduced a significant change in the ending of Charu and Bhupati’s story. In Tagore’s work, Bhupati is offered a job in Mysore and he takes Charu with him. She asks for it at first, but changes her mind and says in only one sentence: no, let it be as it is. She stays in Calcutta. Satyajit Ray, however, was convinced that Bhupati and Charu should decide to reactivate Bhupati’s newspaper together. When the couple returns to Calcutta after a short vacation, the letter from Amal awaits them. Charu reads it first, then shreds it to pieces and bursts into tears. Seeing her despair, Bhupati realizes his wife’s feelings for Amal and runs away from the residence. When he returns, the door is opened by Charulata, who a moment earlier had corrected the vermilion in the part of her hair, which testifies to the status of a wife, and prepared the room for her husband’s arrival. She stretches out her hand towards Bhupati, with a gentle smile inviting him to cross the threshold. Bhupati hesitates but seems to want to take his wife’s hand. At this point, however, Satyajit Ray interrupts this scene, replacing the smooth camera shot with six still frames. The first shows the hands of Charulata and Bhupati almost touching, the second and third shows the faces of the wife and husband, half bathed in darkness, half lit by the flame of the lamp. The fourth freeze-frame shows a motionless servant holding a lamp – light is a symbol of awakening and understanding, so it can mean a new beginning in the lives of Charu and Bhupati. In the fifth freeze frame, the director captured the spouses in a broader scene – their hands almost touch each other; in the last one he showed the same scene in a general setting. Not a single word is uttered – according to the director, only total silence was the appropriate equivalent of a short sentence uttered by the literary version of Charulata.[4]

In the original story, Charulata submits to social norms – she admits defeat and, as an unfaithful wife, decides to suffer punishment, voluntarily condemning herself to separation from her husband and loneliness. Satyajit Ray made Charulata a thoroughly modern woman who rejects the consequences of her actions and fights for her own future. The director himself was pleased with the effect achieved in The Lonely Wife – twenty years later, in one of the interviews, he stated that this is his only picture that he would have shot in exactly the same way.[5]

The novel Ghare Baire, which Satyajit Ray brought to the big screen in 1984, focuses on the critique of nationalism and the swadeshi movement. However, it deals also with the problem of changes in the perception of women’s situation in the early years of the 20th century and the transformation of the traditional Indian family. Its heroine is the illiterate lady of the house Bimala – the wife of a wealthy zamindar, whom she worships like a deity. Nikhilesh, however, expects from his wife partnership, not worship – he encourages Bimala to read and learn English, develop a habit to think for herself, discover her own needs and fulfill them, and urge her to abandon the habit of purdah. However, it is only when Sandip, one of the leaders of the swadeshi movement, arrives at her house that Bimala actually rediscovers herself.

With the exception of the ending, Ray’s film stays close to the novel. Of course, the director introduced some modifications – primarily changing the way in which the narrative is constructed. While Rabindranath Tagore cast the voice to all three characters, in the film the story of the unusual emotional triangle is told only by Bimala – thus Satyajit Ray broke the unwritten rule of Indian filmmakers, according to which only a man could be a narrator. Moreover, by giving all three characters the right to speak, Rabindranath Tagore seems to treat them all equally, while in Ray’s film Bimala becomes the anchor of the narrative.

Both in the novel Ghare Baire, and in its film adaptation, Bimala does not see herself as a victim. She is the happy wife of a man whom she can shower with love and affection. Nikhilesh appreciates the charm and grace of his wife and believes that her beauty should not be hidden from the world. Chatting with Bimala, he refers to mythology and literature, claiming that ancient Hindu culture did not have a tradition of isolating women from the outside world. He evokes figures such as Sita, Draupadi, and Savitri, assuring that their lives were not limited only to women’s chambers – an interesting move thanks to which Satyajit Ray reminded that discrimination against women is not an immanent feature of Indian tradition, and therefore should not take place at all.

Nikhilesh manages to persuade his wife to leave the zenana after Sandip’s arrival. In the film, the moment when Bimala leaves the antar mahal for the first meeting with the guest, is shown as an exceptionally significant event. The camera initially focuses on the woman’s foot, who takes the first step, then the close frame turns into a wide one, and the viewer sees Bimala and Nikhilesh walking in a slightly slow motion along the long corridor connecting the female part of the residence with the outside. The prosaic activity of moving from one part of the house to the other becomes a symbol: the abandonment of outdated traditions of ancestors by Bimala in favor of a modern vision of the role and position of women in society. Marie Seton rightly described this scene as “unforgettable visual lyricism.”[6]

With every new meeting between Bimala and Sandip, mutual fascination begins to grow, although the woman is long unaware of its true nature. When Sandip confesses that he would like them to be united by more than just work for the country, Bimala becomes angry, but soon realizes that her devotion to Sandip has more love and erotic attraction than her desire to work for Bengal independence. Satyajit Ray leaves no doubt about the nature of the relationship between Bimala and Sandip, for the first time in his film career reaching for scenes of physical intercourse of lovers, reluctantly seen even in artistic Indian cinematography – in Tagore’s works, however, present only between lines or not at all.

Ghare Baire again shows Ray’s extraordinary attitude towards women – not only does he not judge Bimala, but even cheers on her emotional and erotic searches. He thus again seems to express what, due to the customs of the time, Rabindranath Tagore could not write directly – in his creative work, the writer focused on aspects of a woman’s life that had not yet been discussed in Indian literature: women’s emotions, needs, and dreams that went beyond maternity issues. For Tagore, intellectual needs, feelings related to the relationship in marriage and women’s own sexuality, which demanded satisfaction as much as the man’s did, became central themes. Decades later, although still constrained by the requirements of censorship, Satyajit Ray could go a few steps further, almost encouraging women to explore their own sexuality, release erotic energy, and to let go of the shame imposed on them by the patriarchal traditions. Over time, filmmakers began to follow in his footsteps, and Bengali cinematography started to deal more and more boldly with issues of female sexuality – these themes are present, for example, in the films of Rituparno Ghosh and Aparna Sen, but Satyajit Ray was the undisputed pioneer.

Watching Satyajit Ray’s films, I cannot shake the feeling that each scene was the result of many hours of discussions between the director and the writer – it reflects what the novelist wanted to convey to his readers so perfectly. I like to imagine Tagore praising Ray’s vision in interviews and giving his works five stars out of five. I also have no doubt that together they created unforgettable female characters – strong, brave, and bold, and their feminist message has influenced the minds of the readers and audiences and continues to revolutionize the perception of women in the Indian society.

[1]    R. Tagore, Personality. Lectures Delivered in America, Macmillan and co., Calcutta 1916, p. 1724.

[2]    D. Cooper, The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: Between Tradition and Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 86.




[6]     M. Seton, Satyajit Ray. Portrait of a Director, Pengiun Books India 2003, p. 319.

Photo: myRepublica

Blanka Katarzyna Dżugaj is an Indologist, Arabist, and Journalist and holds a PhD in Humanities in the field of literary studies. Her research interests focus on the audiovisual arts of the Middle East and Asia, especially Bengali artistic cinema and gender in Asian cultures. She is the author of several publications on Indian and Arab cinema and literature.


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

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