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From ‘The Dark Room’ to ‘Bhumika’: The Perennial Saga of Female Subalternity

By Sambhu Nath Banerjee

The recent incidence of the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus has affected the communities all over the world in some way or the other. People of different age groups, from children to the older population have suffered a lot and consequently reacted differentially towards this pandemic. Growing complexities of modern life like unemployment, inflation, and economic recession have been aggravated manifold because of this pandemic. The long-term consequences of such pandemic can be attributed to its potential to cause extensive destabilisation of socio-economic fabric of a nation. Although the bad aspects of this pandemic are more numerous, there is at least one positive point: for some, the uninterrupted stretch of lockdown has provided ample leisure time to explore creativity (Banerjee, 2021). For others, unfortunately, this spare time has not only proved to be non-productive but also prompted them to resort to various offensive activities, both on the domestic front as well as in a particular region or locality.

Any dynamic society has to undergo constant evolution which is a slow but gradual process, in order to keep pace with the outside world. Imbibing scientific, cultural and economic development only helps a society to march forward, catering to its progressiveness. Indian society is steeped in rich cultural heritage derived from the legacy of the Vedas and Upanishads. The place or position given to the awomen determines the real worth of a society. Traditionally women in India have been attributed a motherly image in a patriarchal system that has commanded respect and adoration from all quarters of the society. As the society is becoming more liberal and consumerism is fast growing, various issues like gender disparity, and conjugal conflict amounting to domestic violence are raising their heads. Most importantly, the economic status of a family vis-à-vis the actual earnings and not the earning potentials are contributing to such increasing disharmony. Then comes the pandemic, and given its potential to cause widespread instability, it is no wonder that the mental peace within the four walls is going to be dented like never before. A long stretch of lockdown has compelled the male and female partners to stay together for a prolonged period. Coupled with economic instability and rampant loss of jobs, various domestic crimes have taken place which have gone unnoticed or unreported. In most of these cases, the women have been on the receiving end, as they are blessed with an enormous power of resilience!

Domestic disharmony arising out of a clandestine relationship is not at all uncommon in our society. In an apparently happy and economically stable family, the male partner often gets attracted to a good looking woman, who is either officially separated or does not stay with her husband. The reverse is also true: the wife having a relationship with a wealthy man. Sometimes both the partners have some illicit affairs outside their marriage. Recent advancements in social media platforms only help grow this type of relationship. Lack of understanding and lack of fidelity among the partners often lead to physical harassment and mental disquiet, affecting mostly the female counterparts under patriarchal dominance. As more and more women take up jobs with handsome earnings, the scenario is fast changing. For the upper and creamy layer of the society, the discord is tacitly handled. The women in the so-called middle class are the worst sufferers, as they do not have the courage and mental strength to fight against male chauvinism.

Literature and films, the two most powerful art forms, have depicted this burning issue of female subalternity time and again. In Mahanagar (1963), Satyajit Ray has shown the insecurity of a husband, whose wife has to work outside the home, mingling with people freely in order to ease the financial pressure of their family. In 1980, the maestro worked on the controversial topic of the extramarital affair of a wealthy wife, who is seen engaged in love-making, despite her son being present in the house (Pikoo). In Paroma (1985), noted actor-director Aparna Sen has given emphasis on the economic freedom of a middle aged wife who falls in love with a younger photographer. According to Sen, economic freedom can help the cause of liberalism. For the present study, we intend discussing the plots of two important works Bhumika, a 1977 film directed by Shyam Benegal and The Dark Room, the novel written by R. K. Narayan, which was published in 1938 by Macmillan & Co. London.

There is a striking semblance between the two central characters: Urvashi or Usha in Bhumika and Savitri in The Dark Room. The plots might appear divergent at first look, but an undercurrent of claustrophobic convulsions followed by desperation to escape to a milder and safer environment bridge the superficial division of the two storylines in a very comprehensive manner. Both the women are victims of gender discrimination and molestation. Urvashi is a successful film actress, while Savitri is an obedient and dutiful housewife, who values womanhood, loyalty and devotion more than anything else. Ultimately both of them find themselves trapped in the nimbus of apathy, indifference and negligence.

In Bhumika, Urvashi has been forced into the acting profession to overcome the economic instability of her family, but is prepared to leave the screen world for good after marriage. Her husband, however, insists that she must continue in that role as the earnings from his business are not enough to run their family. It may be described as the patriarchal compulsion of a typical Indian family – the husband is far from accepting the free mixing of his famed actress wife with her co-stars and other influential people of the film unit. Here begins the problem of all sorts, as the husband becomes suspicious and starts doubting the morality of his wife, unleashing a volley of physical and mental assaults on her. Urvashi being a strong-willed woman does not succumb to the subalternity and leaves her home in search of a better partner. After an unsuccessful liaison with the nihilistic director Sunil Verma, Urvashi tries to find peace in the palatial estate of the wealthy businessman, Vinayak Kale. After spending few days as his mistress and de facto second wife (his first wife is bedridden), Urvashi is stunned to know that she is not permitted to visit the nearby fair with the boy of his first wife. Unable to accept such a sacrifice of her personal freedom, she takes help of her first husband to rescue her from the grip of the wealthy businessman. Time passes, and her daughter is now married, but Urvashi refuses to stay neither with her daughter nor with her first husband. She prefers to live alone in a hotel, the void within being her only company.

The plot in The Dark Room by R. K. Narayan (RKN) is similarly interesting, revolving around three central characters: Savitri, the diminutive and compromising wife; Ramani, the ruthless and unfaithful husband; and Shanta Bai, the beautiful woman who joins Engladia Insurance Company, where Ramani works as a secretary. Ramani is a cruel husband and a careless father, hardly having any sympathy or love for his family. Whenever Savitri is tortured by her husband, she endures; when her endurance crosses the limit she enters into the dark room to sulk and tries to bury her anguish. The story becomes complicated with the arrival of Shanta Bai, a middle aged woman, separated from her husband. Ramani easily gets attracted to her feminine charm and gets involved with her in an illicit affair. Upset with the development of her husband, Savitri prepares herself in seductive outfits to win back Ramani from the tether of the concubine but fails miserably. Heartbroken and enraged, Savitri leaves her husband and attempts suicide by jumping into the river, but is saved by a blacksmith. He takes Savitri to his village and helps her get a job in a temple. Savitri here again faces molestation and rude behaviour. Her motherly instinct then is suddenly aroused and she becomes restless for her children at home. Savitri finally returns to her home and surrenders herself to a life of disgrace and ignominy.

RKN beautifully depicts the picture of a hapless mother who at the cost of her own happiness returns home, knowing that more of such insult and abuse would be in store for her. In Bhumika, Urvashi prefers to stay alone after she comes to know her daughter is happily married. She refuses her daughter’s request to stay with them. Unlike Savitri who remains compliant with the behaviour meted to her by Ramani and enters into the Dark Room to avoid further humiliation and embarrassment, Urvashi sticks to her own principle and judgement what she believes to be true. Both Urvashi and Savitri are like weary and thirsty travellers, trudging through the dreary desert sand, occasionally coming across a mirage, which finally eludes them and leaves them longing for a sweet, peaceful home.

It’s pertinent to mention here that Bhumika has been inspired by the book, Sangtye Aika (in Marathi, meaning You ask, I tell), an autobiography by Hansa Wadkar. Wadkar (1923-1972) was a famous actress of Marathi and Hindi films. She had faced many difficulties in her life including marital problems, exploitation, humiliation, even physical molestation and was never happy. Her marriage had a bitter ending, and her daughter was kept separated from her life. With surprising candour, Wadkar has described all those harsh experiences of her life in Sangtye Aika. In Bhumika, Smita Patil played the role of Wadkar. The movie won National Awards, including that of the best actress award.

It’s a matter of shame that domestic violence ranging from the verbal abuse to the more heinous physical assault occurs frequently in our country. Forceful intercourse equivalent to rape may also be a common occurrence, but wives often remain silent thinking that such news might spoil their family reputation. It’s certainly a healthy practice that both husband and wife be engaged in some sort of work, which may not always be monetarily lucrative, to ward off petty wrangling. Such distancing is good to condense the bonding between male and female partners, bring happiness and sweeten conjugal life. Staying together for long hours under one roof during the lockdown period may have resulted in an increase of complications in the domestic front. The pandemic per se cannot be accused of playing the major role behind such cases. The attitude towards the better half needs to be changed. Eschewing the hostile feeling, a sensible person should peep through the window of her mind. Every little care, every little kiss can solve many problems in life.


Banerjee, S N. “Pandemics: Insights from World Literature.” Café Dissensus, February 14, 2021.

Narayan, R.K. The Dark Room.

A teacher and a researcher, Sambhu Nath Banerjee (Ph.D. in Ag from 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, Briefly Zine and 3Elements.


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

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