Ray’s Real Women

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.

19 comments
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  1. Very nice, the characters(especially woman) in Ray movies are very realistic. These days, those kind of characters are very rare. Satyajit ray is the Master of Cinema.

    “I have admired his films for many years and for me he is the filmic voice of India, speaking for the people of all classes of the country…” - Elia Kazan

  2. Well, that’s what differentiates a master and a mediocre filmmaker. What is important is to be true to your perception of the world…the way a maker chooses to see it. I remember Philip Kolker writing in his book about Wim Wenders, about Wenders being politically incorrect in his relationship with women but that was Wenders and he was honest to his world view…ditto for Mr Allen. What I love about your piece Irene is the point that Ray never coloured his women with feminist agenda…he represented them the way he saw them or wanted to see them..of course both Ray and Tagore are masters when it comes to understanding women. Good piece, Irene!

  3. Always a pleasure to revisit and remember the films of Satyajit Ray.

    What is special about this article is this writer’s knowledge about these characters,
    her compassionate understanding of these women.

  4. I agree with your article’s overall argument - that Ray showed women in their set up in his times-a patriarchal society. You are right in saying that he did not paint them as rebellious or feminists as it was his choice but that doesn’t mean that there were no voices of dissent.
    “Ray seeks and often discovers the truth about his women characters because those characters are rooted in their age and society.” Try and deconstruct this ( I am writing this only to engage in a discussion,) what about the theory-Death of the Author. Are we right in saying Ray chose to discover/seek the truth abt women? 2. What is the truth about women? There can never be an absolute truth.
    Sharad Raj: In my opinion, it is not essential to portray a true picture of the world to be master filmmaker. That ways only realistic cinema should be considered good cinema, which I am sure is not the case. Anyways, if you are portaying ‘reality’, it is already a portrayal not reality itself.
    Secondly, “What I love about your piece Irene is the point that Ray never coloured his women with feminist agenda”,you seem to be saying there is something awkward/wrong with coloring women with feminist agenda. What’s wrong with that?

  5. Thanks Ravi, Sharad, Nadi and Priya for reading this…. Priya, even though there are no absolute truths, the quest remains and perhaps the finding is in the journey itself…
    I do have a certain regard for realistic cinema…
    And while there is nothing wrong with feminism (and if there is, that’s a separate argument :)) there is everything wrong in coloring women with a feminist agenda. The characters don’t ring true then…

  6. While watching Ray’s films I have always wished I understood Bangla, just to see whether the communication between Ray and me through the silver screen is well-interpreted. I generally don’t read sub-tiles from the second time I watch, the language has to be in the film. This article has given my readings an affirmation. It may look funny but I have never asked anyone or attempted to read about Ray’s films in detail because I fear I might display my ignorance. Thankyou Irene…This write up shows how well you know the woman.

  7. Thank you Sune.

  8. Nice one Irene. There’s one more thing, Ray’s women are always surrounded by real men. Charu never sees her husband doing push-ups through the opera glasses and the brother-in-law never roams around shirt buttons open revealing his sixty-six-packs. Someone should write about Ray’s men also. Be it in films or literature, Apu or Felu, there was always something vulnerable, something fallible about them.

  9. Nice piece Irene!

    Just the point I was going to make, Atul. There’s nothing heroic about Soumitra’s actions in either Charulata or Kapurush. In fact, he is weak with his faults but also yes, real.

  10. Atul, Karan, maybe one of you should write on Ray’s men!

  11. Irene, I am weak, I have my flaws, I hate writing! I do it only because I am forced to do so at times. :)

  12. Karan, now you tell me!!!

  13. Erudite and sensitively written blog. It was a pleasure to think about Ray’s films and his cinematic mastery once again. Yes Ray’s portrayal of women of has not only all the hallmarks not only of a true master of cinema but also of a person with a great clarity of vision and empathy for his characters.
    One might think of one of his ‘more neglected’ (in my opinion) masterpiece Aparajito where his portrayal of Sarbojaya as a ‘mother’ is at odds with the heroic and sacrificing mother that has been the staple of Indian cinema for long. Here Ray captures the tensions between a mother who is worried about her own security and loneliness which is at odds with her son Apu’s dreams of making it big in Kolkata. Sarbojaya who is forced to suffer alone when Apu leaves home is not very happy that her son is going out of her control and wants him to comeback and settle in the village much to Apu’s chagrin. No wonder such a portrayal of a mother-son relationship among many when the film was released!
    Also I feel the greatness of a film has got nothing to do with political or ideological correctness. I for one feel pretty happy even watching films of Leni Reifensthal (knowing fully well about its despicable ideological position) just for the beauty and grandeur of her mis-en-scene!

  14. Yes Monish, the mother who is not “all sacrificing” or unbelievably heroic…

  15. Sometimes I think the ‘popular’ movie portrayal of women has fostered rather than not, the oppression wrought upon women compelled to bear the cross of societal norms. I never tried to examine the thread of women portrayal in his movies. All the more reason why this has been a fabulous read for me.

    Thank you Irene.

    Dagny

  16. Dagny, thanks :)

  17. Lovely blog post, Irene. I think the point you make that the characters are so real because they are not laden with the film-maker’s own political or social agenda. While there is nothing wrong with using films to propagate your own ideas, most so-called feminist films, at least in India turn out to be another excuse to show violence or rape or revenge. Just another way to show more female flesh.

    Anyway, I think a post on Ray’s men is due, The Third Man. :)

  18. Banno, The Third Man is too lazy, you’ll have to do it! Thanks for reading :)

  19. Not rising to the bait Banno, Irene. In any case someone better qualified who has seen a lot more Ray films than I have should do it. And as for being lazy, kindly check which blogger has written the most blogs on this site, and reviews and profile pieces and…

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