Sensuality envisioned through the lens of Raj Kapoor and Satyajit Ray
By Sambhu Nath Banerjee
During the late nineties I was looking for the tail of a long serpentine queue meandering through the open space between Light House and New Empire, two iconic cinema halls of the then Calcutta. More than two hours of patience was finally rewarded when I could purchase a ticket for Kama Sutra, screened during the Calcutta Film Festival. Audience in the hall probably had more than enjoyed the frontal nudity of Maya and Tara (played by Indira Verma and Sarita Chaudhary respectively) than they could expect the doses of eroticism in an Indian language movie. That too, it came from a lady director, Mira Nair (1996). The charming presence of fully dressed, ever-green Rekha was no less pleasing and adorable alongside the other two actresses. It is a matter of perspective as to how the beauty of a person can be exploited on a large canvas.
After the British departed India, there were revolutionary changes from 1950s onwards in the fields of science, art and culture. Satyajit Ray introduced the elements of neorealism in his ‘Apu Trilogy’ that earned him numerous accolades from across the world. Raj Kapoor was making pure family entertainers like Awaara and Shree 420. Both the directors were a bit conservative in their early career. Ray of course is a versatile genius, exploring diverse themes for his films, adapting great stories by the noted Bengali writers like Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Parasuram, Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay, Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, apart from working on his own stories. From the 1970s, we could see distinct changes in the selection of themes and subjects by both Ray and Kapoor. They became more generous in terms of explicit use of the sensuous elements in their films. As if, they were gradually evolving with time and society.
Post independent Bengali movies produced during the twentieth century didn’t offer many ingredients to talk about when it came to projecting the female body as the central theme of the story. Hindi films were, however, more advanced in sound and print quality, laced with sizzling dance sequences by the lead actresses and the vamp girls. Sharmila Tagore, who was introduced into the film world by Ray in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959), made quite a headline by wearing a swimsuit in the super hit Hindi film, An Evening in Paris (1967). In one of the rare instances, renowned actor director of Indian film industry, Aparna Sen had perhaps appeared in the most voluptuous role of her film career in Mohonar Dike (1984). All credit must go to the director, Biresh Chatterjee, for capturing the actress in a stunningly provocative swimsuit. On several occasions in the film, the camera angles had made excellent use to scan the ravishing curvature of the figure, Aparna Sen can boast of.
Now we are going to concentrate on the films directed by Kapoor and Ray during 1970s when social and political crises were looming large on the horizon. Starting from Mera Naam Joker (1970), Raj Kapoor went on to make sizzlers – Bobby (1973), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Prem Rog (1982) and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) – one after another with ‘adequate’ skin show. Mera Naam Joker, having one of the longest running time, focused on the life of a clown played by Kapoor himself. Young Rishi Kapoor playing the child version of the clown became awe-struck seeing his teacher, played by Simi Garewal, undress and change clothes in open air. In the latter part of the film, the clown discovered the true identity of Meena in disguise, played by Padmini, from her torn shirt – no doubt an innovative approach, mixing innocence with sexuality. Dimple Kapadia in red bikini (Bobby) and Mandakini sparkling under a natural shower and flashing her assets wearing a see-through white saree (Ram Teri Ganga Maili) had infused a lease of life and freshness, without crossing the limit of decency. Satyam Shivam Sundaram was also heavily loaded with scenes of Zeenat Aman exhibiting her bare body. The subject chosen for Prem Rog (starring Rishi Kapoor and Padmini Kolhapure) was a forbidden love affair between a widow from the upper cast and a low-caste young man. This melodramatic movie was skillfully directed by Kapoor, highlighting the age-old maladies of caste differences, without resorting much to skin display. Although there were criticisms from some quarters, the progressiveness vis-à-vis the courageous approach of showing female body aplenty in movies had only helped the Indian film industry to take bolder steps in the current century.
‘Adequate’ is, of course, a relative term, which holds different meanings for different people. Socio-economic and cultural status of a country also has a profound impact in moulding the mindset of creative personalities. Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider starrer Last Tango in Paris (1972) is such a case in study. ‘Sexually explicit’ might not be the proper term to describe the amount of nudity and eroticism shown by the Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci, in the movie. Theo Angelopoulous, the acclaimed Greek director, had used an unusual sense of calmness while dealing with these tricky affairs. And the Maestro is far from being explicit, having the mastery of tacitly depicting an adult theme with poetic craftsmanship.
When political turbulence was rocking the state of Bengal and its epicentre Calcutta, Satyajit Ray had depicted how various social and economic issues like poverty, unemployment and corruption cramped middle and upper middle class life in three of his films, Pratidwandi (The Adversary in1970), Seemabaddha (Company Limited in 1971) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman in1976). In Pratidwandi, the protagonist Siddhartha (played by Dhritiman Chatterjee) is trapped in a conflict of love for his city and desperation to have a decent livelihood. His sister is the only earning member in his family and on the road to prosperity being promoted to the position of PA of her office boss (a pay hike of Rs. 200/ per month). There was enormous scope of showing female flesh under such a ‘compelling’ situation. Ray, however, opted to project only the bare arms of his sister wearing sleeveless blouse on several occasions to give a hint to his audience that she had used her physical assets for her goal.
Her dance show during the night hours in front of her brother was perhaps symbolic of their release from the shackles of poverty that redeemed the earnest intent to survive. And there was Miss Shefali, the famous cabaret queen of Ray’s time. Ray did never hesitate to cast the most appropriate person for a given role in his movies. True to her reputation, Shefali was shown in a provocative outfit, with a bra on the upper part, a long white petticoat tied from the waist, holding a cigarette in her hand. In Seemabaddha, too, Ray had given some screen space to Shefali, for performing a cabaret dance in a star hotel.
In Jana Aranya, the helplessness of an educated youth, Somnath, for securing a job and his compromise with the evil forces for his survival have been poetically painted by Ray. In one scene the camera captures the sister of Somnath’s friend changing clothes in front of an open window, only to the pleasure of a group of local youths.
Before the Calcutta Trilogy, Ray had made Mahanagar (The Big City) in 1963, where probably for the first time the maestro had showcased modernity through the lead female character played by Madhabi Mukherjee.
The bra which was distinctly visible through the transparent blouse which the actress wore stood as if as a testimony to a contested site of patriarchal Indian modernity compared to Euro-Western modernity (Lipi Begum 2020).
It is pertinent to mention the way Ray had used the beauty of a fresh Sharmila Tagore in his movies. Tagore had acted in as many as five of Ray’s films. While she was shooting for Seemabaddha, she was already a glamour queen of Bollywood, because of her daring exposure in An Evening in Paris. However, Ray had never presented her in any of such outfit that might evoke an amorous feeling in the mind of the audience. If Aparna Sen was the actress, whose pleasingly erotic presence was exploited by Ray in films like Pikoo and Jana Aranya, Sharmila Tagore was the lady whose exquisite, ethereal beauty had been exploited most aesthetically on screen by Ray. In Ray’s world, Sharmila had a different kind of image – the image that was created in Apur Sansar, and nurtured in Devi, Nayak, Aranyer Din Ratri and Seemabaddha. Ray has exploited every ounce of her facial beauty, starting from Apur Sansar that depicted fabulous close ups (Banerjee, 2022). Watching Tagore in Ray’s films is a divine pleasure that fills the mind with undying fervour for out-of-the world charm.
Ray’s entry into the film world defying all odds is inspiring for the future generations (Banerjee, 2021). His contemporary Raj Kapoor had an additional advantage as he came from a family already in the film business. He founded the RK Films, a production company, and made so many popular and poineering films under its banner. Ray conquered the world because of the simplicity, diversity, casting ability and magnificent artistry in dealing with sensitive themes for his films. A progressive upbringing as part of the Brahmo community helped Ray to use sensitive elements in films with measured accuracy. It is hard to find such liberal treatments in the works of two other contemporary greats such as Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Learned readers may well remember the intimacy between Bimala and Sandip (played by late Swatilekha Sengupta and Soumitra Chatterjee) depicted through their lip-lock in Ghare Baire (The Home and the World, 1984). Again, it is a matter of perspective as to how the sensuous undertone can be conveyed without hurting the sense of ‘decency’ on the large canvas. Ray was far ahead of Kapoor on this issue, needless to say.
Begum, Lipi. “Neorealism, the Bra and the New Indian Woman in Satyajit Ray’s The Big City.” Fashion Theory, vol. 24, no. 5 (2020): 697-713.
Banerjee, Sambhu Nath. “Ray’s Artistry and Reflection of European Neorealism in Indian Cinema.” Café Dissensus, Issue 58, May 2021. < https://cafedissensus.com/2021/05/06/rays-artistry-and-reflection-of-european-neorealism-in-indian-cinema/>
Banerjee, Sambhu Nath. “Apur Sansar – of Love and Anguish: A Rhapsody of Intense Human Emotion.” Harvest (Online), vol. 7, no. 1 (2022): 1-8.
Acknowledgement: The images used in this article are the screenshots from the respective movies freely available on the internet. The author is grateful to YouTube authority for free availability of these movies supporting recreational and educational purposes.
A teacher and a researcher, Sambhu Nath Banerjee (Ph.D. from the University of Calcutta) has a great passion for writing, photography and travelling. He writes on diverse topics such as Sister Nivedita, Satyajit Ray and films. His works have featured in Muse India, Borderless Magazine, Briefly Zine and 3Elements.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.