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Rhetorical Construction of Motherhood in Ritwik Ghatak’s Films

By Debjani Halder

Mother You’re the last refuge.
We, worthless creatures of the world,
Can do nothing.
This world lives
Because of you.
But we’ve no right
To say this
For we’re your abandoned children. – Ritwik Ghatak, 1971[1]

From the Vedic to the colonial period, ‘motherhood’ was seen as the ultimate identity of Hindu women. The concept of ‘glorifying Hindu women’ through her reproductive capacity was an excellent ploy to keep
them away from socio-economic privileges like education and profession. Jasodhara Bagchi[2] has pointed out, while the social reform era addressed women and tried  to bring the colonial state machinery to bear upon their lives, the nationalist era used motherhood as the only viable symbol of Bengali womanhood. Moreover, it was the symbol that helped bridge the socio-religious and political domain of the colonial society. The representation of motherhood through the nationalist approach was a multi-dimensional symbol and its authenticity arose out of its natural appropriateness to the social climate of Bengal. In the 1940s, those Indian film directors who portrayed women as ‘ideal mother’ or Deshmatrika actually contributed to upholding the hierarchy of patriarchal control within the family. This, in turn, made negative contributions to the lives of women, thus reducing them to a mere mythical symbol of order.

Indian parallel filmmakers considered motherhood as one of the bases of women’s oppression because it creates and reproduces male dominance. In a personal interaction, filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli said,

…the theories of subjugation, oppression is grappled with the fact of the material bodies of women. The human body has been perceived differently: while by Marx as the economic body and by Freud as the sexual body, rather than the body, constituting as an individual. Feminists like Beauvoir and Wollstonecraft explained that the female body is more than a biological entity rather than a politically inscribed entity. If we recall de Beauvoir’s observation, we find patriarchal culture constructs both women and nature as ‘other’, both are to be crushed and exploited. Within the patriarchal social structure,  pregnancy has alienated women from herself, from culture, making it difficult for her to be the agent of her destiny and engage in her transcendence.[3]

In his film Nagarik (1953), Ritwik Ghatak explores the truth that women’s economic subordination is reinforced by patriarchal, cultural and religious attitudes. He explains that it is a basic tendency of fundamentalism to place the ideal woman on a pedestal as an iconic mother, while knocking down the real woman of flesh and blood. He depicts through the character of Ramu’s mother, a woman who lives a subsistence existence, that her socio-economic dependency does not undermine her ability as a decision-maker. However, she is treated as a caretaker of the house and a childbearing instrument. The character of Ramu’s mother is an example of many other helpless housewives, who as the anchor of their family struggle against poverty every day. Feelings of peril and anxiety devastate her when she is anguished at her inability to provide two square meals to every member of her family. She also suffers when she fails to marry off her daughter, Sita, because of her financially straitened circumstances. Her affection dries up as she fails to cope with extreme penury. She clings to Sagar, their paying guest, as the support system. Ramu’s existence becomes insignificant to her for his inability to earn money. He even forfeits the right to his mother’s affection. Ghatak portrays the character of Ramu’s mother in the context of contemporary socio-economic reality. In contemporary mainstream cinema, the character of the mother is patently stereotyped: she is tolerant and blind with affection. Ghatak’s portrayal is completely different, as he realized that it was unjustified to evaluate a woman of flesh and blood as an ‘ideal mother’ in extreme poverty. She becomes increasingly irritable unwilling to understand Ramu’s mental crisis.

Through the character of Ramu’s mother, Ghatak tries to explain that the evolution of the political understanding of the process of development has strengthened the patriarchal structure in post-partition India. He indicates that the state is an inconsistent actor because the state and traditional patriarchy are in binary opposition on many occasions, while in other circumstances the state is the patriarchy which oppresses women. The Indian state reflects tendencies of a post-structuralist state which relates to women in unpredictable and uncertain ways. The factors that decide whether the state will act in pro- or anti-gender ways is determined by the constructions of a mother, and the meaning usually associated with these constructions. While the Indian state, as Ghatak depicts, is simultaneously fractured, oppressive, threatening and also provides spaces for struggle and negotiation, it creates the need for a mother to influence discourse and meanings.

In Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Nita’s mother represents a typical refugee housewife who is torn apart by a daily struggle to survive. She measures all relationships in terms of earning money. Thus, she reproaches her eldest son and provokes him into leaving home. She is alarmed by Nita’s relationship with Sanat. She is afraid that if Nita marries Sanat, the family will lose their only source of livelihood. So, she does not hesitate to indulge Nita’s sister Gita’s game of seduction in the obscure room in the refugee colony. Sankar, her eldest son, leaves home to become an artist and Gita for a prosperous conjugal life. Nita’s mother clings to Nita like a spider, for Nita is her only support, the only means of survival for the impoverished family. Unwittingly, she lets Nita become a machine for earning money. When Nita’s father raises the issue of her marriage, she is alarmed, for that would spell doom for the family. She reprimands her ailing husband, “You’re too naïve. If she gets married, what will we be left with? Sucking our thumbs?”[4]

In the film, Ghatak indicates that motherhood constitutes a political issue when it is bound up with the idea of the family and, more specifically, when it is related to the concept of maintenance and survival. Ghatak’s portrayal of Nita’s mother as a selfish cruel woman, who always puts the interests and demands of the family above her, is actually very much grounded, as deftly analyzed by a refugee intellectual. In this context, it is also worth mentioning that though Ghatak invests some of his female characters with symbolism to excess, some are very much of this world, full of flesh and blood. Nita’s mother in Meghe Dhaka Tara is one such character, who from her sense of duty as a housewife wants her family, along with sons and daughters, to survive. In this imperative for survival, the question of purity and moral values is inconsequential. Thus, she wants her breadwinner daughter Nita to remain a maiden for life. She is unable to repose trust in Nita’s sacrifice. She is haunted by the fear of her family’s ruin because of the need for money, which drives her to selfishness and to mistrust her daughter. It is from a sense of insecurity that she wants to be assured, time and again, about Nita’s commitment towards the family.

Film critics suggest that Nita’s mother represents a cruel, selfish and crooked woman. Kumar Shahni blames Nita’s mother for Nita’s reversal of fortune and her death.  But Ghatak views it from a different angle. Her apparent selfishness is born out of a deep concern for the preservation of her family. Her dream of a two-storied house is for the betterment of her family. But, at the same time, one discerns a streak of heartlessness among the guardians in pursuit of comfort and happiness, which is underscored in this film. In his article, “Aloukik Pratispardha”, Abhijit Sen reminisces, “After Partition, we were as helpless and terrified birds in a cage. Our guardians were baffled by Partition and they felt insecure. They struggled extremely hard to ensure the existence of their families. Yet, at the same time, this struggle often bred baseness and cruelty on their part which was a sordid tale, a dark chapter, by all accounts.”[5]

Theoretical implications of the mother and motherhood in films have been considered across the world. The sudden emergence of a debate about the representation of motherhood in Indian culture was influenced by the feminist film theorists in the 1970s. Several scholarships tried to understand not only how the mother or maternal is was represented in films but also most significantly what the function of that representation was. Earlier mainstream cinema made a distinction between a good and bad mother which were historically associated with the mother goddess’s cult (Good Goddesses and Bad Goddesses). The mainstream cinema located womanhood, wifehood, and motherhood within the duties of domestic labor, while goddess ritual created submissive sacrificial qualities and concentrated on producing a subjectivity shorn of valor. In mainstream cinema, the concept of “good” mother is always depicted as one who feeds the child on-demand with a wholesome homemade complex. Renowned Indian psychologist Sudhir Kakar states:

The Indian mother is intensely attached to the child … From the moment of birth, the Indian infant is greeted and surrounded by relentless physical ministrations. The emotional sensuality of nurturing in traditional Indian families serves to amplify the effects of physical gratification. An Indian mother is inclined towards a total indulgence of her infant’s wants and demands whether these be related to feeding, cleaning, sleeping or being kept company. Moreover, she tends to extend this sort of mothering to well beyond the time when the ‘infant’ is ready for independent functioning in many areas. Thus, feeding at all times of night and day and ‘on-demand’.[6]

If the parallel filmmakers committed to portraying the Mother character as real flesh and blood, rather than a symbolic ideal prototype, why did a few of them implement the Jungian ‘archetype’? In the film, Devi (1960), Satyajit Ray critiques the patriarchal ideas of imposing the image of a mother goddess on women and depicts the truth that the status of the Devi or goddess is a veiled form of exercising male authority which fails to recognize women’s autonomy. Ray depicts how women lose their individuality when they are paraded with pomp and splendor by male authority. In his films, Ghatak introduces the archetypes, as useful methods of retrieving women’s identity, rights, and dignity in the patriarchal social order. In this regard, Ghatak argues that motherhood is one of the values protected by people, who have, through thousands of years, privileged the position of women by bestowing on the Mother supernatural powers as a bulwark against disasters. Ghatak holds the view that “mother complex is a basic primordial force”, which he uses as a tool against exploitation, in which the archetype manifests itself sometimes in a ‘benevolent’ form and sometimes in its ‘terrible image’. In this regard, Ghatak was deeply influenced by Jung’s “Collective Unconscious.”

According to Jung, there resides in every male’s subconscious the image of an ideal woman. This abstract image of a woman has formed over thousands of years of men’s experiences about women. Jung said that this image of women is constructed by male imagination as ‘anima’.[7] According to Jung, this anima is the ‘Great Mother’, who has two aspects: the benevolent and the terrible. Ghatak was so much influenced by this theory that, in his films, he brought to the fore the image of the ‘Great Mother’ as a rejuvenating force to overcome women’s repression and erosion of human values. Though a Marxist, Ritwik Ghatak was evidently influenced by Jung’s theory of “Collective Unconscious” or the theory of the ‘Great Mother’. He explained his position thus:

There’s no contradiction between Marx and Jung in so far as the collective unconscious determines men’s unconscious behavior, whereas the entire class structure determines their conscious behavior. These two are complementary because Marxism is valid when men become socially as well as politically conscious as a class when they are engaged in real activities. But Marxism has no explanation when it comes to the question of dreams as the manifestation of the subconscious mind, where Jung is the last work.[8]

Ghatak believed that the concept of the ‘Great Mother’ was born of fear and wonder of people in primitive societies. He was also aware of the fact that this turned in the hands of the clerics into a tool of exploitation in the garb of religion to perpetuate male hegemony in society and benefit the ruling class. This notwithstanding, he modelled his central female characters on the image of the ‘Great Mother’, which incarnates self-sacrifice, tolerance and preservation. This emotional engagement with the image of the ‘Mother’ transforms the women characters into symbols. It is worth mentioning at this point that before Ghatakw the image of Bengali mothers as tolerant, self-sacrificing and affectionate had been glorified from the nationalist viewpoint: “The human ideal was one of all-suffering mother: the marvelous, unselfish, all-suffering, ever-forgiving mother.”[9] Ghatak used the ‘Mother’ image to glorify sacrifice and tolerance of Bengali middle-class women in post-Independence Bengal. Like Eliot, Brecht and Godard, Ghatak too wanted to build a tunnel back to mythical times so that the apparent reality merges into the real to infuse life into the sculpture of contemporary reality. In this respect, Meghe Dhaka Tara and Subarnarekha are two films worth mentioning.

The realist filmmakers neither portrayed the mother character as a symbol of selflessness nor as a bad woman. They depicted the mother characters with all their predicament: for example, what a housewife had to face for sustaining her family in times of economic hardship. Filmmakers portrayed her sense of helplessness in times of poverty and her urge to protect it, preserve it, hardships notwithstanding. Parallel filmmakers depicted the mothers as first and foremost a housewife whose commitment was to the family. It is from this commitment that they exploited their breadwinner children and treated them like a machine for earning money. But, somewhere, one discerns their latent feelings of affection for their children, though these are not articulated in tangible terms because of poverty and social insecurity. In Meghe Dhaka Tara, Nita’s mother’s latent motherhood pricks her conscience for she has smothered her daughter’s dreams for the sake of her family. Thus, she repeatedly says, “It’s not what I wanted.” Driven by feelings of motherhood, she bares her soul, tormented by remorse, before Nita and wants to be with her helpless dying daughter in a friendless world. She wants to understand and share Nita’s sorrows and sufferings that the other members of the family do not:

Mother:  What’s the matter with you? You come at night and lay your bed in the outer house.

Nita: Does it matter? It’s all the same. It’s a friendless world, anyway.

 Mother: Will you hide it even from me? Won’t you tell me anything?[10]

In mainstream cinema, the character of the mother is constructed in the image of a biological mother who has some pre-determined role to play. In other words, a mother denotes a selfless figure whose affection is bountiful. But the parallel filmmakers depart from this construct of motherhood and analyse in depth the character of mothers in the context of an uncertain world where bare survival is at stake. The figure of the mother emerges as that of flesh and blood with all her failings and redeeming features.

[1] Ghatak, Ritwik (1971) ‘Amader Phelona’

[2] Bagchi, Jasodhara, (2017) Interrogating Motherhood. Sage, New Delhi. P. 76.

[3] The interview of Girish Kasaravalli was taken by the author in 2018 January, Dhaka.

[4] Ghatak Ritwik (1960) ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’

[5] Sen Abhijit, (2006) ‘Aloukik Pratispardha’, ‘Desh Bhagh O Bangla Upanyas, Edited By Uday Chand Das and Arindam Chatterjee. Deys Publication Kolkata, p. 147.

[6] Kakar, S. (1996). The Indian Psyche. Delhi: Oxford University. P. 81.

[7] Jung C.G. (1923) ‘Development of Personality’, The Collected Works of C.G.Jung, Vol. 17, Princeton University Press. P. 198. Jung writes, “Every man carries with him the central image of woman, not the image of the particular woman, but a definitive feminine image. This image is fundamentally unconscious, and hereditary factor of primordial origin engraved in the living organic system of the man, an imprint or archetype of all the ancestral experiences of the female, a deposit as it were, of all the impressions ever made by woman.”

[8] Ghatak Ritwik (1965), ‘Cinema and I’, published by Seagull, P. 20.

[9] ibid

[10] Ghatak Ritwik (1960) ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara

Dr. Debjani Halder is a filmmaker, film historian and film curator. She has received several national and international Research Fellowship Awards and is a Fellow of National Film Archive of India. She is currently working as Assistant Professor in Department of Film studies and Filmmaking, RV University Bangalore.


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

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