The women characters in Satyajit Ray’s films are not perfect women of unquestioned and unquestioning virtue and this one quality makes his wide range of women characters real, rooted and remarkable. Unlike the heroines who inhabit the world of contemporary popular Indian cinema, whose character sketches have been treated with more thrift than their skirts, Ray’s heroines are fallible, human, flawed…
Very few Indian filmmakers will have portrayed a gallery of women characters as varied as Ray’s. This was a filmmaker who understood his women characters and his characterization went far beyond any cursory lip service to either feminism or societal expectations. Let’s look at Charulata from the film of that name, inarguably Ray’s most famous woman character. She is beautiful, rich, good-natured, dreamy, talented, but also lonely and bored. Charu does something unforgivable for ‘a virtuous woman’ in popular Indian cinema, she finds herself falling for her brother-in-law! And the filmmaker actually understands Charu and empathises with her loneliness.
While Charu’s attraction for another man is never sought to be justified, it is certainly understood. Not because she has a fiendish husband or a rakish brother-in-law or because she is a loose woman, but because human relationships are not always easy to explain. Her loneliness is because she is a sensitive and intelligent woman who is confined, due to her time and class, to looking at the world and even her husband through opera glasses. When Charu strives to live a life beyond what is her defined role, the result is turbulence. But Charu is always true to herself and if there is a hint at a possible reconciliation at the end, it is not out of denial of what has happened, but because of some sort of an acceptance.
Pather Panchali’s Sarbajaya is a good woman who finds her life of endless hardship so difficult at times that she gets uncontrollably angry, taking out her anger on an old dependent relative Indir, and her own daughter Durga. She is as sacrificing as any popular cinema mother but doesn’t make a virtue out of it, even spelling out regrets when she says once that she too had had dreams. Pather Panchali’s world is primarily inhabited by women characters apart from the oft-disappearing father Harihar and little Apu. There is dignity in the tatters they wear even as large eyes speak volumes about all that life has denied them. As Durga watches her friend the bride getting dressed up, she knows that she will never be a bride herself. One night a storm rips apart their precariously preserved existence and Durga lies in her mother’s lap, dead. By the time the film ends, two of the three generations of women in the family are dead – Indir who was always at the receiving end of Sarbajaya’s vitriolic outbursts, and Durga, at whom Sarbajaya’s anger was so often directed because she loved her. Sarbajaya once drags her thieving daughter by her hair, and along with anger, there is also hurt… and there are no dialogues mouthing platitudes. This is because these are real people, made real by the novelist Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay as well as filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
Seemabaddha throws up two sisters – Dolon, the acquiescent one, and Tutul, the one with a conscience. The elder sister Dolon has chosen the comfortable life of a senior executive’s wife and she and her husband Shyamalendu are this apparently nice couple who do not ultimately stand up to younger sister Tutul’s scrutiny. Tutul sees the shallowness of the glitzy life and the price that one has to pay, and it makes her cringe. She does not make a big cry about it but in one quiet, firm gesture returns a watch that her brother-in-law had given her to wear. She takes a stand, reminding one of what Ray once remarked. “I think I have perhaps a subconscious conviction about women – that they are basically more honest, more forthright – because physically they are the weaker sex, there are perhaps certain compensating factors in the general makeup of their characters. ”
It is important to remember that popular Indian cinema too has often reveled in showing women characters as the more honest ones, except that this has more often than not just been a case of plastic melodrama with cardboard characters. Ray seeks and often discovers the truth about his women characters because those characters are rooted in their age and society. So an upper-class, apparently liberated woman Aparna in Aranyer Din Ratri loses to the male hero Ashim during the course of a memory game because she knows that if she wins it may kill her chances with him. Ray never gives in to the temptation of glorifying these characters, by making them feminist heroines as lesser filmmakers often do, thus putting political statement above the character’s rootedness. Ray’s loyalty is always to a truthful portrayal of characters, who ring true because they are rooted and because he understands them so well. Like Doyamoyee in Devi, who is a victim of her father-in-law’s superstitions and a patriarchal, feudal set-up. Or Anila in Agantuk, who is human enough to be suspicious of the suddenly-surfaced uncle but also humane enough to not want to slight a man who might actually be her uncle.
The scantily clad heroines of popular cinema are always virtuous and in case they are ever guilty of wayward behaviour, the justification will go to hilarious extents to eliminate any doubts about the said virtuousness. Ray portrayed his women as they stand in a patriarchal society, and as real individuals capable of good and bad, and he portrayed them with understanding and humanity.