As the celebrations for Satyajit Ray’s centenary year begin, contemporaries remember the breadth of the auteur’s genius. First up, actor Sharmila Tagore writes a tribute to the women in his films — feminists with the right to choice, sexual and intellectual freedom in a patriarchal world

I don’t know why, as we approach Manikda’s 100th birthday, my mind keeps going back to the day when Ela Bhatt (social activist) told me about his passing. Perhaps, it is the lockdown effect. At the time, I was standing at the foyer of our house in Pataudi and although I was getting regular updates on his failing health, her words caught me unawares. The rest of the day was a blur. Later, when I was alone in my room, it finally hit me that I will never see him again. That when I visit his home, it wouldn’t be Manikda who would open the door and say, “Come in, Rinku. Tell me all about Bombay!” His chair next to the window where he sat surrounded with his books, paintbrushes and music would be empty. It was both surreal and heartbreaking.

It’s been now over 60 years since Manikda made his first film, and almost 30 years since his passing, yet his films continue to be a part of our discourse, our consciousness, seen and admired in other countries and cultures. This is a tribute not only to the artistic merits of his films but also to the essential humanism of Ray, which lives on across time and space. Manikda’s legacy is manifold but what I admire the most are the array of complex women characters he depicted in his films. Ray did not deny his women the right of choice. His women had agency. They were primary protagonists in their own right, which wasn’t the norm in those days. His understanding and portrayal of women were not contrived. This, perhaps, can be understood in the context of the two strong women in his life — his mother, a single parent who brought him up, and his wife, who was a constant companion and critic through his creative pursuits.

Out of all of Ray’s screen women, Sarbajaya (Pather Panchali, 1955) comes to mind immediately, a woman battered by the ravages of poverty, stoically bearing what fate hurls at her. This was the era of Mother India (1957), Pyaasa (1957) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960) in Hindi cinema — all considered epitomes of iconic women characters. Or, Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), among Bengali films. While Ghatak raises melodrama to an art, there is no denying that his women, much like the iconic women in Hindi cinema, were essentially “mother goddesses”. The difference with Ray is stark: in Sarbajaya, there is neither self-pity, nor glorification of her fortitude. In contrast to the world-weary Sarbajaya is the impish Durga — forever curious, with a sense of adventure, always courting trouble, and, sometimes, wanting to escape to another world. Protective about Apu, she dies before she can live her dreams but her absence seems to resonate in Apu’s life with a plangent wistfulness all through the trilogy.

Then there’s Indir Thakurun, wrinkled, bent double with age. We remember almost every nuance of her performance: how hungrily she looks on as Sarbajaya eats, her complete absorption with self-preservation, how she is immune to all insults and is ready to go door to door in order to survive, how she gobbles her food up and still has the urge to nurture a plant, and her bond with Durga and Apu.

Apur Sansar (1959) was my first film with Manikda. My very first scene was where Apu brings his bride home and invites her into his small one-room tenement. At first, we see how tentative Aparna is. She is now away from the protective comforts of her home, alone with a man she barely knows. She is overwhelmed by her situation. Then we sense her resolve as she comes to terms with her new beginning. Apur Sansar, among other things, articulates this wonderful sense of love and hope. Sixty years on, the romance of the film has not faded.

My next film Devi (1960) is the story of a feudal patriarch’s obsessive conviction that his daughter-in-law is the goddess incarnate. I play the role of Doyamoyi who becomes a victim of religious orthodoxy. Even as she is dressed and garlanded as a devi, even when she is shocked and overwhelmed and cannot fully comprehend what has happened to her, she cannot contemplate that the head of the family, her father-in-law, can ever be wrong. Confused and disoriented, she is too timid, tradition-bound and too young to assert her will or her sense of self-preservation. This paralysis of rational thought which traps women in a space the patriarchal order has decided for them exists even now. Even today, like Doya, scores of women continue to suffer injustice in the name of family, tradition, culture and honour.

Unlike Apur Sansar, where I felt energised on the set, here I was constantly beset by a feeling of heaviness, as though I was carrying a massive weight on my chest. The claustrophobia was inescapable. It was as though the oppression of Doya had reached out to infect me. I think Manikda had told everyone not to interact with me, he wanted me to feel isolated. This worked very well for the character.

While I was committed to an outdoor shoot for Aradhana (1969), Manikda called me again to play Aparna in Aranyer Din Ratri (1970). But this Aparna, unlike the Aparna in Apur Sansar, is a modern, educated city girl. “Ray’s women in this film are of superior moral sensibility and his men are all helpless children”, one critic bemoans. Like Aditi in Nayak (1966), I play the “conscience” in this film. Through her rational, non-judgmental outlook, the hero discovers his humanity.

Ray’s women characters struggle with countless odds: tradition-bound, young Doya’s capitulation before the fanatic will of the family patriarch, with economic freedom in Mahanagar (1963), the freedom of choice in marriage [Kapurush, 1965; Samapti (Teen Kanya, 1961)], transgressive erotic desires (Charulata, 1964; Seemabaddha, 1971; Aranyer Din Ratri) and her struggle to retain her dignity in an unequal and patriarchal world (Aranyer Din Ratri, Mahanagar, Nayak). These women are exceptional in the way they articulate their emotional, sexual and intellectual longings. In a gesture that predates the women’s movement in India, the protagonist in Mahanagar stands up to her husband and his family and refuses to give up working simply because her identity as a working woman has hurt the husband’s ego. Similarly, when she resigns from her job, it is to protest against the wrongful dismissal of a woman colleague with whom she chooses to stand in solidarity. In the closing scene, as Aarti and Subrata walk uninhibitedly hand in hand through the crowded streets of Kolkata, it is almost as if Ray is heralding a new era of gender parity. The quiet revolution wrought by the daughter and the mother in Kanchenjungha (1962), where they emerge out of years of being dominated by the family patriarch to stand up for their own desires, is, without doubt, one of the most stirring onscreen statements on the overthrow of the deadwood of tradition, more powerful because it is understated. In Charulata, the protagonist does not have a crisis of conscience. She is not apologetic about her passion. This in itself was a dramatic departure from a majority of the films that were being made at the time. Ray gifted his women protagonists the liberty which defied the cliché that the male desire is visual while the woman’s is sensory.

As researcher Writaja Samsal says, while contemporary society was unable to fathom a separate existence for women other than in relation to men, or the struggle inherent in such dynamic existences, Satyajit Ray recognised and depicted women as sexual beings with the same desires and needs as men — something patriarchy still can’t quite come to terms with — without ever filming overtly sexual scenes. In film after film, he explores the issue of women’s rights and the need to push the patriarchal envelope. In this, his films lend themselves to contemporary reading. Yet, they are not aggressively women-centric, anti-men or anti-society. After all, it is Nikhil who encourages his wife to step out of the andarmahal and into the world outside in Ghare Baire (1984). It is only through this exposure that she confronts herself and her emotions, evolving from a housewife to a woman with a mind of her own — even if that evolution comes at a price.

It is impossible for me to define the “half shades, the hardly audible notes” that he wanted “to explore and capture” in his women. From Sarbajaya to Bimala, they trace an arc that encompasses the entire gamut of the feminine experience. Even the secondary women characters speak eloquently of the time in which his films were made. One could go on and on, but for me, as a female member of the audience, it is at once humbling and empowering to see such enduring portrayals of womanhood on screen. I have no doubt that given the many concerns of his films, Ray’s cinema, with his unforgettable women protagonists, will return to enrich our lives over and over again.

Sharmila Tagore
Actor Sharmila Tagore is the former chairperson of Central Board of Film Certification.

Courtesy The IndianExpress