The Quintessence of the Motherhood in Satyajit Ray’s Films
By Sambhu Nath Banerjee
Mothers are held in highest esteem across communities, culture or society. Whether in literature or in films, mothers have been epitomised in various shades – from devoted, sacrificing, loyal, motivated to the more complex and challenging aspect of their characters. Indian film industry has witnessed this spectrum of diversity in a woman’s role concomitant to the commencement of neo-realism during the post-independence period. Dulari (1949), Mother India (1957), and Sujata (1959) are some of the early examples where women have been projected as personalities ready to take up any challenge in life. There are films where the powerful portrayal of a mother sometimes becomes obscured by the sizzling romantic chemistry of the lead pairs like in Aradhana (1969) and Saptapadi (1961). The performances of Sharmila Tagore and Chhaya Debi in a mother role are as commendable as their lead heroines in the respective films (Sharmila in a double role in Aradhana and Suchitra Sen in Saptapadi). In Uttar Falguni (1963), Suchitra Sen delivers one of the most powerful performances of her life in a double role. A woman who does not want the shadow of her past life befall on her daughter, a mother determined to stave off her malevolent husband denying him any chance to cause harm to her daughter, and finally the daughter who is now a lawyer stands by the side of her accused mother after knowing her true identity – all these subtleties have been so nicely put to life by Sen that the film earned the National Film Award in 1965. These are the few such occasions among a flurry of popular commercial films where some seriousness has been injected in the story-line.
It is true that the majority of the audience are used to appreciate, rather relish the stereotypical depiction of mother-daughter-in-law, mother-son/daughter disagreement and finally reconciliation in the most melodramatic fashion. This has remained the trend in popular Hindi and Bengali films from 1950s till the recent times when more sophisticated techniques vis-à-vis cinematography, soundstage, and computer graphics have made their way into film-making and consequently have made a big turnaround in the movie plots. For more critical analysis and estimation of a character role, the work of the maestro still remains as relevant as in the other fields of film making. Satyajit Ray has dealt with a vast array of subjects in his three and half decade career – from a rural backdrop in Pather Panchali to Calcutta Trilogy that explore the erosion of human values against the harsh city life, from period pieces like Charulata and Jalsaghar to children’s films like Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Hirak Rajar Deshe which bear a strong socio-political message under the garb of pure amusement.
For more than one reason, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road, 1955) remains the cult movie in the history of Indian film world (Banerjee 2021). Ray is the paragon of auteurism as he himself is one of the greatest story-tellers and a novelist. Ray is fondly remembered for his distinctive style of narration, his mastery over script writing and impeccable sense of photography, aptly supported by Subrata Mitra. “The raw material of the cinema is life itself,” in all most all his films Ray has touched upon these basic tenets of neorealism. “For a popular medium, the best kind of inspiration should derive from life and have its roots in it. No amount of technical polish can make up for artificiality of theme and dishonesty of treatment.” In Pather Panchali also all the characters including Apu, the protagonist, Durga, Indir Thakrun, Harihar (father) and Sarbajaya (mother) are flesh and blood human beings from rural Bengal. Sarbajaya, Apu’s mother, is presented as the most authentic Bengali mother, a character having many shades of affection, hope, despair and mental strength, wonderfully played by Karuna Bandopadhyay.
Ray has infused elements of fighting spirit, sharp alertness and endurance in the character of Sarbajaya, who is otherwise an ordinary rustic woman. Quotidian incidents involving Sarbajaya-Apu and Sarbajaya-Durga have been craftily depicted with great detail. The mastery of Ray is evident as he captures the outburst of emotion of Sarbajaya after the death of Durga in such a measured accuracy. The story line in Pather Panchali is episodic, which moves forward with the undercurrent of a flowing river. Acclaimed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa puts it this way: “It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river” (Terrence Rafferty, 2015). As the story unveils from Pather Panchali to Aparajito, the second movie of the Apu Trilogy, Apu is seen passing through the phases of adolescence to the young age, with his mother Sarbajaya becoming more mature, prudent and resolute. After the death of her husband, initially she has been beset with worries and indecision, but finally arrives at a right judgement. She returns to Bengal from Benares, allowing Apu to leave for Calcutta for higher studies and better prospect, stepping into a bigger world. Although Apu makes occasional visit to the village to meet his mother, in the final moments an ailing Sarbajaya keeps the news secret to Apu, so that her growing son is not bothered by that information. Being left alone, Sarbajaya only wishes her son return to see her for the last time and runs to the door thinking Apu has arrived, only to see the fireflies in the dark. Here Ray has heightened the bonding of mother and son for eternity.
Based on a short story by Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay, Ray directed Devi (1960), which revolves around a controversial belief system in rural Bengal in the 19th century, where a 17-year-old Dayamoyee is worshipped as a goddess by her superstitious father-in-law. The film deals with the Hindu patriarchal ritualistic traditions that cost a young life and dooms the life of a young mother. The film shows to what extent a young life can be ruined when faith becomes subservient to blind faith and superstition. It is pertinent to mention here that Lord Ramakrishna once worshipped his wife, Sarada Devi, just like he used to offer puja to Mother Kali. His purpose was only to glorify the position of women in an otherwise male dominated Hindu society and not to wrest any favour out of that display.
In 1980 at the peak of his film career, Satyajit Ray was approached by a French gentleman named Henri Fraise, an independent film and television producer, for making a film for a French television channel named France 3. The man assured Ray of full creative liberty for making the film. For this project, Ray decided to choose one of his own short stories from Pikoor Diary, and adapted it for the screen. Just spanning 24 minutes, Ray has chosen a very complex theme in Pikoo mother’s extramarital affair and infidelity, her regret for being unfaithful to her son which is evident from her breaking into tears before going for a mid-day affair. Her lover is invited in broad day-light, to spend intimate moments even when her son Pikoo is at home because his school is closed for the day. Her lover brings a gift of paint set for Pikoo, who is assigned by her mother to draw every single flower in the garden with the colour he has just received. In one of the climactic moments, the mother looks from her bedroom at her son engaged in drawing, innocently obeying her words without knowing the actual motive of his mother. This brings tears to her eyes. The camera now pans the garden where Pikoo obediently does what his mother has asked him to do. When she reaches the peak of physical pleasure, Pikoo shouts and asks if he should use a black crayon to draw a white flower. In the second climactic moment, Ray shows a close-up of the face of the confused mother and that of an annoyed lover. Renowned actor-director Aparna Sen, who has played the role of the mother in the movie, later argues that the tears in the first climactic are unjustified, and she finds it difficult to cry in that scene. Sen even goes on to say that Ray has been very unsympathetic to the mother (Dutta 2019)! In her second directional venture Paroma (1984), Sen herself dealt with such a controversial topic – a mother of three children from an affluent family speaks and acts in favour of economic freedom to justify her extra-marital affair. Individual perspective varies a great deal while commenting on such debatable topics and one’s assessment is purely subjective based on personal preferences, interpretations and beliefs.
A number of Ray’s films showcase such incidents that amply evoke the warmth of unconventional motherhood. In Ashani Sanket (1973) Gangacharan Chakraborty, a sober well-behaved person, starts living in a village of West Bengal with his charming wife, Ananga. In a short span of time he wins the hearts of the local villagers by virtue of social service through teaching, nursing ailing patients and spiritual practices. Ray gives the first hint of an impending crisis of famine, when Dinobondhu Bhattacharjee, from a neighbouring village appears from no-where and informs Gangacharan about the shortage of food grains. The crisis deepens as Gangacharan walks miles away to see one Nibaran Ghosh, who has a good stock of rice but refuses to part with, in view of the acute shortage, even in exchange of higher price. Heartbroken, Gangacharan is about to leave when he is called back by Nibaran who offers the Brahmin to have a lunch of fish curry and boiled rice. His daughter, Khenti in a motherly act, supervises the lunch session and assures the Brahmin some rice when he leaves for his home. Nibaran’s absolute refusal to sell rice turns to charity and his daughter exudes the motherly charm, which is simply a triumph of humanism.
In The Postmaster, adapted from a short story by Tagore, Ratan, an orphan girl provides nursing to Nandalal, the postmaster suffering from malaria. The girl is so caring that she cannot hide her emotion when Nandalal is about to leave. In Aranyer Din Ratri, Mr. Tripathi’s daughter Aparna and daughter-in-law Jaya, who is also a widow, enjoys a similar kind of freedom. Here the maestro has ensured equal cinematic space to both the women and their bonding, while the only male member in the family (Mr. Tripathy) does not spark any sort of rivalry, which has been handled by Ray with utmost sensitivity. Pahari Sanyal, Sharmila Tagore and Kaberi Bose all are equally brilliant in bringing their respective roles to life.
On the topic of the reality, Ray opines: “Surely it is not only what constitutes the tangible aspects of everyday existence. Subtle and complex human relationships, which many of the best fiction films deal with, are also as much a part of reality as those other aspects generally probed by documentary makers” (Ray, Deep Focus, 2011). In his entire career, Ray has elegantly depicted how the touch of motherhood lends completeness to the life of a woman, whether she hails from rural or urban areas. In his first original story and screenplay, Kanchenjungha (1962) Ray tackled these complexities of women characters with utter sensuousness. Ray’s last feature film Agantuk (1991) also focuses on the motherly instinct, propelled by Mamata Shankar to a new height.
Banerjee, Sambhu Nath. “Ray’s Artistry and Reflection of European Neorealism in Indian Cinema.” Café Dissensus, May 2021, https://cafedissensus.com/2021/05/06/rays-artistry-and-reflection-of-european-neorealism-in-indian-cinema/.
Dutta, Nandita. “Does women’s liberation mean adultery? How Aparna Sen differed from Satyajit Ray.” The Print, 21 July, 2019, https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/does-womens-liberation-mean-adultery-how-aparna-sen-differed-from-satyajit-ray/265463/.
Rafferty, Terrence. “The Apu Trilogy: Every Common Sight.” The Criterion Collection, 2015, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3798-the-apu-trilogy-every-common-sight.
Ray, Satyajit. Deep Focus, edited by Sandip Ray, Harper Collins Publishers India, 2011.
A teacher and a researcher, and a Ph.D. from the University of Calcutta, Dr. Shambhu Nath Banerjee is associated with the Department of Plant Physiology (Ag) as a Guest Faculty. Dr. Banerjee has a great passion for writing and publishing articles on diverse topics from Sister Nivedita to Satyajit Ray and has a liking for English poems, photography and travelling. His works have appeared in Muse India, Borderless and Briefly Zine.
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