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Filming FictionTagore, Premchand, and Ray$

Mohd Asaduddin and Anuradha Ghosh

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780198075936

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198075936.001.0001

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Tagore's Women Protagonists Through Ray's Camera

Tagore's Women Protagonists Through Ray's Camera

Re-presenting the Shifting Concepts of History, Culture, and Identity

(p.116) Tagore's Women Protagonists Through Ray's Camera
Filming Fiction

Tutun Mukherjee

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Satyajit Ray's cinema has consistently explored different aspects of womanhood to generate a constellation of ideas, images, debates, reflections, histories, and provocations. This is evident in films such as Postmaster, Charulata, and Ghare Baire. Situating the eye as the site of perception and reflection, Ray's films stress the important role of cinema in articulating and structuring identity, particularly that of a woman in India. The representation of women in several of Ray's films derives from Rabindranath Tagore's fiction. This chapter explores Ray's portrayal of women in Tagore's narratives, which allows him to re-assess modernity and interpret the past, explore the complex interaction between reality and representation, culture and identity, and tackle the relationship between literature and film. When the camera and the cinematic screen frame mediate our vision, what are recorded are moments of perception that suggest insights into cultural history.

Keywords:   Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray, women, identity, culture, history, perception, representation, modernity, film

The daemons, to tease and make sport with men, have placed among them single figures so alluring that everyone strives after them, and so great that nobody reaches them.

—Goethe (qtd. in Eckermann 1998 [1930]: 260)

SATYAJIT RAY IS a rare auteur whose cinema has consistently explored different aspects of womanhood—from young Ratan (Postmaster) and rebellious Mrinmoyee (Samapti) to obsessive and haunting Monimalika (Monihara) and Doyamoyee (Devi), to courageous Sarbajaya (Pather Panchali) or curious Charu (Charulata), Bimala (Ghare Baire), Arati (Mahanagar), Aditi (Nayak), or the fascinating Aparna and Duli (Aranyer Din Ratri)—to generate a constellation of images, ideas, reflections, debates, histories, and provocations. Situating the eye as the site of perception and reflection, Ray's films emphasize a central role for cinema (p.117) in articulating and structuring identity—most often, that of a woman in India.

As the above titles indicate, the representation of women in several of Ray's films derives from Rabindranath Tagore's fiction. Indeed, the early Ray seems to be inspired by Tagore's engagement with modernity and the analyses of its transforming impact, especially on women in Indian society. While Tagore is regarded as the ideal product of the so-called ‘Renaissance’, Ray has often been called, not surprisingly, the ‘last Bengali Renaissance Man’ as the inheritor and an exemplar of the Tagore tradition, a classic chronicler of a changing traditional society, a humanist, an internationalist, and a modernist. This paper will study Ray's enduring relationship with the portraiture of women in Rabindranath Tagore's narratives, which provides Ray the opportunity to re-assess modernity and interpret the past, interrogate the complex interaction between reality and representation, culture and identity, and explore the relationship between literature and film. Since the work of Tagore and Ray reflect two discrete epochs of cultural transition, it is interesting to examine the way the transformation of Tagore's protagonists from pracheena to nabeena is conveyed by Ray while configuring the ‘woman’ of the post-Independence decades. When the camera and the cinematic screen frame mediate our vision, the very act of ‘see-ing’ must be recognized as irrevocably shifting, transitory, and open-ended. What are recorded are moments of perception that suggest insights into cultural history.


Although one need not detail Tagore's views regarding socio-cultural movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries since they are well known and discussed, the milieu and ethos of the time and the contentious issues regarding women's liberation must be delineated to understand Tagore's response to them through the varied and nuanced characterization of women in his fiction.

In the light of the imperialist efforts in nineteenth century towards women's education that focused on the ‘Hindu woman’ as the subject to be transformed, the education and literacy initiatives of the colonizers (p.118) emerged as a major discourse in which women's social progress figured as a contentious issue (Mukherjee 2007: xxi-xxxv). While social reformers like Rammohan Roy, Radhakanta Deb, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Mahesh Chunder Deb, and the leading Brahma Samajists supported the literacy drive and expressed concern about the treatment of Indian women as passive vehicles for the continuance of traditions and customs, another section of the society regarded the colonizers' efforts as an imminent threat to the private domestic sphere that had not yet succumbed to the imperial design (Ingham 1956; Kopf 1969). Much of the British philanthropy was perceived as a guise for conversion into Christianity or effecting radical cultural transitions in the name of progress. The widespread anxiety led to ‘native’ resistance and dissent and the safeguarding of the hitherto unchallenged domain of patriarchal authority from the calamitous western impact became crucial to the Indian male (Basu 1982; Kumar 1991). It is hardly surprising therefore that the image of the nation blended with that of Indian womanhood as poignantly shackled, and demanding to be rescued from the clutches of the alien power, a condition provocative enough to become the impetus for indigenist rhetoric. For instance, one of the most influential writers of the time, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay deified Indian nation and womanhood as Devi Durga/Kali and importuned the release of their assimilated sakti. Typically, while ‘Devi’ (goddess) of the writer's imagination possessed immense power/sakti, the ‘devi’ (mortal woman) of the household remained severely disempowered.

The significant outcome of the social churning was that Indian communities set up institutes to monitor women's education (Heimsath). As learning for women was expected to have a different kind of structure and content, the kind of education to be imparted to them became the subject of much debate. Was it to be education in patriarchal norms, or were the notions of secular womanhood to be conveyed? Gradually, as more Indian men seemed to want educated wives, a re-conceptualization of women's role within the family and in the society became imperative. Ideally, the debates should have urged a rethinking of the ideological foundations of the societies. But this did not happen. Both the altruistic colonizers and the indigenist reformers were of the opinion that the purpose of women's education was to ‘enlighten’ them (p.119) about the ‘noble value’ of their home-making role so that they could become better mothers, wives and companions for men (and not for training independent minded, politically aware and active participants in the process of society and nation building. The later decades did see women's co-option into the nationalist struggle though rarely on equal terms with men). Hence, when new laws were proposed, the colonial authorities supported the parameters for women's education envisaged by Indian men. Women were not consulted nor were their views regarding issues concerning their own lives considered worthy of cognizance. Thus, caught in the crossfire of convention and modernity, restoration and innovation, social inconsistencies and contradictions, the recipients of the imperial and indigenous reformist zeal, the women of India were reconfigured within patriarchal ideologies.

The dilemma was apparent in the way women began to regard themselves. Encouraged by the views of liberal factions of the society, as for instance reformist institutions like the Brahmo Samaj which tried to synthesize rationality and scientism with the spirit of Vedanta and Unitarianism, the ‘new woman’ or the progressive nabina emerged. She scorned conventions and readily adopted western education, attitude, and style of dressing, while the majority of Indian women or the old fashioned prachina remained immured in superstition and social evils like child marriage, polygamy and the privations of widowhood. The nabina/prachina binary became a major subject of creative articulation. Whereas the modern emancipated New Woman figured in the writing of almost all major writers of the time who often parodied the tendency towards excesses and the lack of moderation in the behaviour and attitude in some of them, the backward looking, superstitious, and conservative woman too was not spared the writers' scathing satire. The positive result, however, was that by the last decades of the nineteenth century, more women were getting educated. Soon they began to write and give expression to their views about the social conditions which included the demand for expanding the scope of women's education. They wrote also to emphasize the need for change in women's condition and philosophy of life. Given the times when they lived and the forces they had to counter, the questioning of customs, conventions, and values was of considerable significance. The spread of printing revolutionized the nature and kind (p.120) of knowledge and information that could be disseminated. This was of particular importance for women because printing provided access to the public sphere hitherto denied to them (Chakrabarti 1995; Dutta 1996).

Tagore's novelistic world conveys the reality of India caught up in the turmoil of opposing ideologies, the clash of the reformist and revivalist forces, and the conflict between the moderate and extremist elements in the cultural and political spheres. More explicitly than the other genres, Tagore's fiction explores and elaborates his response to the unfolding history at the cusp of the centuries besides formulating his political critique and philosophy. Each of the characters in the novels represents a perspective in the Tagorean discourse and thus becomes a participant in India's socio-political dialectics. To mention a few memorable male characters, there are sensitive and liberal thinkers like Binoy and Nikhilesh as there are religious-humanist Gora and the nationalist ideologue Sandip as well as the intellectual Atin. Significantly, though they demonstrate some degree of soul searching, self-discovery is not much evident among the male characters, other than in Gora, as there is among the women characters. The women who populate Tagore's fictional world reflect the confusion of being caught between the two worlds—the secure ‘old’ and the beckoning ‘new’. Their significance lies also in their location at the crossroads of Indian history to illustrate the milieu and the spirit of the time. According to Mary Mathew (2001), the governing assumption of their characterization is ‘a balancing fusion of cultures whereby the heroines combine the graces of the Eastern domestic ideal within the androcentric framework with the characteristically Western virtues of nonconformity, independence in love, and strong decisiveness’ (p. 90). They question the traditional moral sanctions in search of self fulfilment, and in doing so, reflect the eternal struggle in the human consciousness between provocation and love and sacrifice. The point to note is that Tagore observed these upheavals and turbulence from close quarters. His ideas were shaped as much by the things he observed outside—the sights and sounds of nature that flooded the senses, the seasons that came and went, and the way these impacted upon the complexities of human behaviour and relationships—as by the life within its walls of their home, the vast Thakur Bari at Jorasanko, Kolkata.

(p.121) The Tagores were a family of reformers with gifts of brilliant creativity. Their home with its educated and culturally vibrant environment was a microcosm of Bengal's socially and politically awakened ethos. Not only were the male members of the family in the forefront of the social-cultural-political revolutions of the time—whether it was through grandfather Dwarkanath Tagore's business transactions, father Devendranath's leadership of the Brahmo Samaj, relative Prasanna Coomar, Tagore's cultural initiatives, the poetic philosophy of his eldest brother Dwijendranath who founded one of the first Bengali journals Tattwabodhini Patrika, or the reformist zeal of his talented musician brothers Satyendranath and Jyotirindranath—the Tagore women, too, were champions of women's emancipation and progress. They led by their own example of strong social intervention. It is recorded that when Devendranath Tagore learnt that his daughters were asked to merely copy what their governess wrote on slates, he immediately changed the tutor for one who would encourage them to think and understand (Devi Choudhurani 2000 [1997]; Bandopadhyay 1950).

Tagore's mother died when he was only thirteen and lingered in his consciousness as a shadowy figure immured in household chores, but his elder sisters, notably Swarnakumari Devi, were pro-active social reformers and literary stalwarts who championed social reform, founded and sustained journals promoting women's writing. His sisters-in-law were equally progressive in their outlook. Gyanadanandini Devi as the wife of one of the first Indian Civil Services (ICS) officers, Satyendranath Tagore, became (in)famous for accompanying her husband to official parties and social functions. Since she had to go out in society, she developed a style of wearing the sari which is broadly followed by Indian women today and introduced the use of proper undergarments and footwear for women. Satyendranath and Gyanadanandini Devi lived in England for several years and Rabindranath was extremely fond of their children Surendranath and Indira Devi Choudhurani whose stay in England had given them a rewarding exposure to western knowledge. Another sister-in-law Kadambari, who is presumed to have inspired Tagore's novella Noshto Neerh (‘The Broken Nest’), was encouraged by her husband Jyotirindranath to learn horse-riding in the public grounds of Kolkata, defying of the norms of conservative behaviour (Deb 2005).

(p.122) Among the Tagore women of the next generation, perhaps the most outstanding and enterprising was Swarnakumari's daughter Sarala Devi, a student of Bethune School who had demanded to study Physics in college, ‘just like the boys in the family’. As the subject was not taught at Bethune, special arrangements were made for her to attend classes at the Science Association. Sarala Devi edited the family magazine Bharati, went to teach in a school in Mysore, and on her return, was active in organizing martial arts training for young women. She married the nationalist Rambhuj Chaudhuri at, what was considered an utterly shocking age of thirty-three. Indumati, who married Dr Nityananda Chattopadhyay, wore gowns as her usual dress. She was photographed reading and holding racquets, thus demonstrating an educated woman's interest in sports and a life outside the home. Tagore's niece and painter Abanindranath's sister, Sunayani Devi, who was married at age eleven to the grandson of Rammohan Roy, was entirely self-taught. She evolved as one of the leading painters of the time, whose work exemplified a pursuit of a personal vision through the distinct ‘mythic and historicist’ style (Cherry and Helland 2006: 65–7). Sunayani taught her daughter-in-law Monimala to paint too. As is evident from the above survey, the progressive women of Thakur Bari were remarkable achievers in various fields and demonstrated the impact of modernity on Indian society in general and on women in particular.

Needless to say, all dimensions of women's life were neither touched by modernity—towards which Tagore's attitude was apparently ambivalent—nor were invariably rosy and progressive. Through personal experience Tagore knew the grim side which contained illiteracy, child marriage, and premature mortality. He himself married the ten year old Bhabatarini whose old-fashioned name was changed to Mrinalini before she was sent to acquire basic education and etiquette under the supervision of her older and sophisticated sisters-in-law. Tagore performed an early marriage of his daughter and both his mother and wife died young after successive pregnancies. Not just Tagore, there were others like him who found it difficult to totally defy social conventions. Such dilemmas become all too evident in the creative writing of the time.

Tagore's views on women's role in life are well known. In the essay titled ‘Woman’ carried in the anthology Personality: Lectures Delivered (p.123) in the United States (1917), Tagore distinguishes the nature and role of man and woman in the world. He highlights a woman's desire for peace and stability against man's blind race for power. He stresses the need to empower woman because, he argues, the present civilization by thrusting woman aside is almost exclusively masculine and has therefore ‘lost its balance’ (p. 170). In moving from war to war, its motive forces have become those of destruction. This ‘one-sidedness’ is the reason why ‘this civilization is crashing along a series of catastrophes at a tremendous speed.’ The time has come, Tagore urges, ‘when woman must step in and impart her life rhythm to this reckless movement of power’ (pp. 170–1). He compares a woman's function with ‘the passive function of the soil, which not only helps the tree to grow but keeps its growth within limits’ (ibid.). He explains thus,

Woman is endowed with the passive qualities of chastity, modesty, devotion and power of self sacrifice in a greater measure than man is. It is the passive quality in Nature which turns its monster forces into perfect creations of beauty—taming the wild elements into the delicacy of tenderness fit for the service of life. This passive quality has given woman that large and deep placidity which is so necessary for the healing and nourishing and storing of life. If life were all spending, then it would be like a rocket, going up in a flash and coming down the next moment in ashes. Life should be like a lamp where the potentiality of light is far greater in quantity than what appears as the flame. It is in the depth of passiveness in woman's nature that this potentiality of life is stored. (p. 171)

Tagore endows a woman with the life-sustaining power of love through which she discovers, he says, the infinite worth of life (p. 171). He also distinguishes the calm and tranquil nature of the woman of the East from the restless woman of the West (ibid.). Emphasizing the need for the woman to discover the valuable among the mundane, he writes:

Our everyday world is like a reed, its true value is not in itself, but those who have the power and the serenity of attention can hear the music which the Infinite plays through its very emptiness. But women form the habit of valuing things for themselves, then they may be expected furiously to storm your mind, to decoy your soul from her love-tryst of the eternal and to make you try to smother the voice of the Infinite by unmeaning rattle of ceaseless movement.

I do not mean to imply that domestic life is the only life for a woman. I mean that the human world is the woman's world, be it domestic or be it full of the other activities of life, which are human activities, and not merely abstract efforts to organize. (p. 172)

(p.124) Such views form the matrix from which Tagore's female characters emerge. The women in Tagore's fiction undertake journeys of maturation and self-discovery which are at once biological, psychic and emotional, thus revealing their creative and incorporative potential. The novels chart the progressive stages of their spiritual quest and thirst for a life free of constrictions. According to Mary Mathew's insightful study, ‘The growth process depicted in Tagore's fiction of self-cultivation represents what 1952 Liberal Arts Dictionary defines as the union of two slightly dissimilar processes, the cultural and organic goal of psychic challenge, Bildung, and the maturation of inner attributes, Entwicklung’ (2001:90). Mathew explains that Bildung comes from a conscious model of cultural excellence the protagonist aspires to and is strictly the product of pre-established culture-specific values, gender boundaries, and role definitions. Entwicklung, on the other hand, stresses wholeness, self-education, and daring role experimentation after the manner of classic Bildungsroman heroines rather than superimposed models. Entwicklung seeks to discover one's happiness in and through oneself. In Mathew's words, ‘Bildung assures survival while Entwicklung aims at perfection and growth, and this dynamic complicity between opposites best defines Tagore's female formulations’ (ibid.). It is important to stress here that in addition to the kinds of evolution or initiation suggested by Mathew, being women in Indian societies, the self-awareness of the protagonists would necessitate a ‘self-in-relation’ process rather than a ‘self-in-isolation’ one.

A wide range in characterization represents all the aspects of Indian womanhood. On one hand there are those like Annapurna and Asha (Chokher Bali), Borodasundari (Gora), and Motir Ma (Yogayog) with no indication of change in their worldview; on the other hand, there are Anandamoyee (Gora) and Mrinal (Streer Potro) who are liberal, caring, and quietly progressive, fighting patriarchy from within the conservative domestic space. Other characters delineate discursive trajectories and illustrate the play of denial and desire or covetousness as in Damini and Nonibala (Chaturanga), Binodini (Chokher Bali), and Monimalika (Monihara); or the process of maturation and self-reliance as in Suchorita and Lolita (Gora), Mrinmoyee (Samapti), and Sarala (Malancha); or self-understanding through disillusionment and (p.125) disappointment as in Bimala (Ghare Baire), Charulata (Noshto Neerh), Kamala and Hemanalini (Naukadubi), and Ela (Char Oddhyay); as well as the development of strength, discernment, and self-confidence in Labonyalata (Sesher Kobita). Whereas the elemental depths in their nature provide the women the strength to confront life and discover joy and fulfilment, there is also evident in some of them—as in Soshi (Didi), Kadambini (Jeevan Mrityu), Kumudini (Yogayog), Mrinal (Streer Potro), and perhaps even Ratan (Postmaster)—the subliminal despair or existential hopelessness out of which courage must grow to face life and continue the battles for survival and selfhood.

William Radice writes of Tagorean fiction that ‘His stories—not only in their content but in their overall character and “feel”—belong not wholly to the prosaic real, not wholly to the poetic ideal either, but to the ghat where the two meet: sometimes happily (for the ghat is the place of welcome and homecoming, as well as parting), sometimes more uneasily’ (1991: 28). The concept of the ghat is an appropriate description for Tagore's fictional world as also the meeting-place for reality and imagination that opens up vistas of possibilities. It is this realm of possibilities from where a creative text obtains its afterlife—in various forms and modes of interpretation.


Satyajit Ray, a celebrated interpreter of Tagore's fiction, has given a few of Tagore's texts memorable afterlife by creating unforgettable cinematic versions. Ray was drawn inexorably towards Tagore's work, responding first to the music and painting and then gradually to the literature. He seems to share with Tagore the ambivalent attitude towards traditional and modern values and practices. Ray uses his cinema as a powerful narrative medium to examine the changing scenarios of culture. Cinema serves him well to also embody his ideas and views on life and society. It appears that in Tagore's stories he finds the dialectical features that best express his socio-cultural pre-occupations at the crossroads of time, although for purposes of visual representation, he was somewhat bothered by Tagore's controlled perfection of speech.

(p.126) All his films have strong narrative base and the stories are drawn from acclaimed novelists who are also sensitive social critics such as Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay, Munshi Premchand, Ibsen, besides Tagore, his grandfather Upendrakishore Raychoudhury, and himself. Ray considered scriptwriting to be the incentive moment in planning a film and an integral part of direction. He invariably wrote the scripts of his films himself. For this reason, his long notebook or kheror khata with sketches of characters and set designs remains an invaluable source material and guide on his filmmaking. Ray was reluctant to make films in any language other than his own since he planned the entire film through the storyboard. He would write his scripts in English too to enable his art director, the non-Bengali Bansi Chandragupt, to read and interpret. For two of his non-Bengali feature films, he wrote the script in English which were then translated in Hindi/Urdu under his supervision. Such was his reliance on the literary text, that he has often been criticized for being too ‘book based’ and too ‘talky’ (he responded to this criticism by citing Godard's ‘discussion’ films which he said were twenty minutes longer than any of his own but no one ever complained!).

Scholars of Ray's cinema trace three compositional phases in his filmmaking career that constitute his response to the changing socio-political milieu of India and more specifically, Bengal. The first phase shows a preoccupation with the grim existential realities of life which he depicted in the manner of the Italian neo-realists like De Sica, Visconti, Pasolini, and Rosselini to uplift the resilience of the human spirit despite the despair. Ray was in total control of his creative medium, not only directing and scripting, but scoring the music and often taking charge of the camerawork. The technology available to him and his contemporaries at the time was not very advanced and neither were the financial resources easily forthcoming. The evocative picture quality, the cinematic range, the play of light and shade, the poetry of images that he was able to achieve through the ingenuity of his ideas and the interpretive work of his camera men and crew, have become cinema legend. The films of this phase exemplify the confluence of his family background, his education in art and music, and the cultural influence of the West. All these together comprise what can be best described as the spirit of modern Bengal. Dilip Basu (n.d.) points (p.127) out that this phase expresses the thinking of post-Independence India which was experimenting with, throughout the Nehruvian era, the forces of nationalism and internationalism, industrialism and socialism, secularism and humanism. Among the formative influences on Ray's art and craft, other than Tagorean worldview, appears to be his deep appreciation of Western cinema. In his book Our Films, Their Films (1998), Ray confesses that his love for movies became ‘serious’ when he began to determine the way ‘Ford (was) different from Wyler, or Wyler from Capra, or Capra from Stevens.’ The directors he repeatedly referred to while talking about filmmaking were Jean Renoir, Vittorio De Sica, John Ford and Frank Capra, to name a few. Renoir's technique had an enduring impact. Although mindful of Renoir's advice in 1952 that there need not be too many elements in a film but only ‘the right elements, the expressive elements’ (cited in Robinson 2005: 86), Ray explains that

… the entire conventional approach (as exemplified by even the best American and British films) is wrong. Because the conventional approach tells you that the best way to tell the story is to leave out all except those elements which are directly related to the story, while the master's work clearly indicates that if your theme is strong and simple, then you can include hundred little apparently irrelevant details which, instead of obscuring the theme, only help to intensify it by contrast, and in addition create the illusion of actuality better. (cited in Robinson 2005: 18)

From Renoir, Ray learnt that there was nothing more important to a film than the emotional integrity of human relationship that can be explored through a film. Conceding that technique is important, he maintained that it should not become the dominant force and overwhelm the content. In fact, technique should enhance and amplify the content. In the words of Sragow (1994), Ray conceived the entirety of a film as a stream of imagery and movement. Ray also expressed admiration for directors as diverse as Bergman, Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, and François Truffaut. He lauded the latter two of the French New Wave for introducing new technical and cinematic innovations.

The 1960s and 1970s brought the nation under the dark spell of the two Indo-Pak wars which brought in their wake misery and privations, agricultural crises, and unemployment, leading to discontent and alienation among the youth. Trouble brewed and escalated in alarming (p.128) proportions especially in Bengal and created an almost civil-war-like situation in the state. In this second phase, Ray responded with films that addressed the lack of basic human needs like food and shelter, the disillusionment of the unemployed and disenchanted youth and the near breakdown of the political system. The third phase in the eighties is represented by films meditating upon the issues of tradition and modernity, rationality and superstition, science and faith, and most importantly as in his memorable last film Agantuk (1991), the discourse of humanism and civilization. His entire oeuvre was created in the face of the general feeling that Indian audiences were incapable of appreciating realist-rational cinema. Despite all this, Dilip Basu (n.d.) laments that the ‘leftist’ filmgoers of Bengal regret ‘a political void’ in Ray's films in contrast to the overt political appeal of Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen films.

Style distinguishes an auteur. The film critic of the Newsweek, David Ansen once wrote that few film directors could equal Ray for the sheer cultural depth that pervades his films. The East and the West meet in Ray and therefore his cinema holds universal appeal. It is at the same time, deeply rooted in Bengali culture and sensibility. Actually, Ray's firm location in his own cultural traditions helps him to reach out to the world with a sense of global understanding. In this too he reflects Tagorean humanism. However, it is also worthwhile to recall at this point the insightful comment made by Andrew Sarris that a distinguishable personal style is necessary but not sufficient condition for being an auteur. Maintaining that ‘Visual style is never an end in itself. … Any visual style can be mechanically produced’ (1985 [1965]: 110), what Sarris considered important was the distinct expressive quality which arose from that style. He believed that the work of a great auteur must manifest an ‘interior world’ or ‘interior meaning’ (ibid.). The distinctive features of Ray's films are their reflexivity and contemplative quality. As Ashis Nandy describes, the films seem to reveal Ray's secret ‘self’ which immerses itself in the imaginative contemplation and subsequent configuration of human relationships (1995: 235). Nandy's observation reminds us of Horkheimer's concern when he wrote that the disappearance of a reflexive inner life resulting from the passive consumption of leisure products and spectacles has led to the loss of (p.129) our power to conceive a world different from the one in which we live (p. 277). Indeed, it may have also dulled the power of our cognitive absorption of the constant flux of social change. Ray succeeded in making Indian cinema an art form to be taken seriously, and in so doing, created a body of work that was admirable in range and richness. Ray once told an interviewer that he was forced by circumstances to keep the stories on an innocuous level but at the same time, ‘pack’ the films ‘with meaning and psychological inflections and shades, and make a whole which will communicate a lot of things to many people’ (cited in Sragow 1994). His intention obviously was to juxtapose two epochs—Tagore's and his own—as the historical subject matter to reflect upon in terms of the inevitable changes that had happened and how those changes had impacted upon individual lives and human relationships, and also the merit of the features that remain. It is important to remember here that Ray does not suggest ‘exact replicability’, as Rajeswari Sunder Rajan puts it, of the actual social communities or representational structures (1993: 142), though some similarities do persist, especially in the way women are regarded, the choices they must make within the patriarchal grid, and the consequences of their choices that they will have to endure. The best evidence of such handling is found in the portraiture of the women characters in Ray's films. Since this paper focuses on the filmic representation of women from Tagore's novels, it will examine the three films of Ray: Charulata, Teen Kanya, and Ghare Baire.

Such is Ray's figuration of characters that they rise from the pages of the literary text to become flesh-and-blood persons from real life and remain unforgettable. Ray traced a character as it evolved through a literary text and then sketched it to conceive a visual appearance. It is a cinematic legend that Ray searched for an actor to match his conception of a character (or, in case of his own stories, he created a role with an actor in mind and would not accept any other. If he did not get the actor of his choice—a rare occurrence—he abandoned the project). Hence, the actors live the parts they enact. So appropriate is Ray's choice that it is difficult to imagine anyone else in that particular role. Madhabi Mukherjee as Charulata is superb as is Kanika Majumdar with her haunting beauty as Monimalika. Ray was able to coax remarkable performances from adolescent actors Chandana Banerjee as Ratan and (p.130) Aparna Dasgupta (later Sen and an award winning filmmaker herself) as Mrinmoyee, though Swatilekha, a seasoned theatre actor, was not as successful as Bimala.

As earlier film critics have remarked, every director is free to discover distinct strategies of stylistic expression and economy. The director as the creator of the visual track, shapes the overall context that would govern how the script was taken. The dialogue and the plot situation could be re-weighted through performances, camera angles, camera movement, and cutting. In his representation of Tagorean women in the post-Independence era, Ray is conscious of the expressive potential of every shot that could help to trace the search for agency that women were still struggling to obtain and the cultural relevance of each character in terms of the postmodern social ethos in which they were being represented. Their struggle remains that of the Indian woman placed in similar situations even in the postmodern era. His cinematic treatment distinguishes each woman in her context and problematizes the situation. Thus each woman stands out in her singularity as the camera lingers over every nuanced expression. Since the films are character-based, the camera glides ponderingly and with sensitivity on the character, separate and alone, or in dialogue, capturing every subtle expression and gesture. The woman is not the ‘object’ of the camera gaze but the camera moves with her in discovering the dimensions of life's experiences in which she is the principal player. The individuality of each character is probed and developed with remarkable variation of shot sequences and camera work. There is a meditative rhythm in the flow of images and sounds, and a fineness of detail in the films that invite engagement and response. The fabula of subjectivity drives the filmic syuzet and each film develops a cluster of techniques. It would have most certainly been a challenge to convey culture-bound meanings through filmic iconography to connect texts to contexts. Sragow (1994) writes, ‘Reviewing Ray's canon, I was struck by how he tied his camera movements to his characters’ psychology, just as Martin Scorsese (who acknowledges a debt to Ray) does, more showily, today. Ray gave meaning and poignance to the steady accumulation of details that in life, as in art, we're apt to pass by. He made art out of the overlooked'. Ray reveals an almost pedagogical engagement with the historical and cultural relevance of the characters, (p.131) as if inviting the viewers to be intimately involved with the different levels of meanings being created. He firmly believed that art wedded to ‘truth’ (of experience) must in the end have its reward.

By his own admission, Charulata was his favourite. It is indeed one of his most accomplished and detailed work. Set in the Calcutta of 1879, the time of the so-called Bengal Renaissance, the period is meticulously recreated in the setting with heavy Victorian furniture, wallpaper, the costumes, and the printing press. Such detailed re-creation of a historical period is also evident in Ghare Baire. Charulata and Bimala are located in their context as its product and evolve according to the social changes of the time. Confined to the antahpur or the inner quarters of their home, Charulata's boredom and loneliness are established in the opening sequence of the film as she wanders through the decorated rooms, seeking alternatively the escapist pleasure of Bankim Chandra's historical romances and the disjunctive view of the outside world through the window slats and the lorgnette. She is distanced from the worlds of both romance and reality. She is as much a Nora in her ‘doll's house’ as is Bimala. The latter is like a precious puppet for her husband, a liberal man, who wishes to transform his wife into a nabina. Bimala is encouraged to dress in the new fashion, is taught English songs and the piano by an English teacher. Into both their worlds enter charming strangers and they are drawn inexorably into a whirlpool of emotions. While Charu's husband is too preoccupied to applaud her first success in publishing her creative writing or notice any change in her, Nikhilesh watches Bimala's growing infatuation for Sandip and his ideology with anguish. The psychic and emotional struggle that the women experience as they try to understand themselves and grapple for identity and agency represents what Mary Mathew describes as the ‘dynamic complicity’ between Bildung and Entwicklung (2001: 90). Tagore and Ray explore the emotional nuances and intricacies of their feelings with non-judgemental sensitivity and empathy. Ray's cinema acquires the dimension of novelistic introspection and subjectivity with his use of mirrors and other reflecting surfaces along with framing devices to indicate the processes of imaging and imagining that Charu and Bimala undergo. There are sequences devoid of dialogue but filled with mood music through which the emotional quotient of the narrative is both enhanced and extended.

(p.132) The significance of the detailing in creating cinematic ambience cannot be over-stressed. Ray's eye for details distinguishes the playful rustic freedom of Mrinmoyee from the repetitive monotony of Ratan's life in the village, and the sinister play of shadows in the rural mansion of the covetous Monimalika—the three women of Teen Kanya. While Mrinmoyee's bildungsroman traces her enticement into the domestic space and marital relationship, Ratan retreats into her stoic, reticent and dutiful self when her love and devotion seem to have been trivialized; and Monimalika clutches desperately at material wealth to compensate the emptiness of her life. Obviously, each story demands different treatment and Ray varies not only the mood and the pace for each narrative, but also the subtlety in the portraiture of the characters to uplift their inner conflicts and emotional turmoil. In Sragow's words, ‘The Three Daughters epitomizes Ray's Chekhovian quality—his ability to suffuse the most awkward and “ordinary” lives with the potency of art without violating their integrity’ (1994). It is noteworthy that Ray too adheres to the illustration of ‘self-in-relation’ model (rather than ‘self-in-isolation’) to record the gradual process of self-realization in the women characters. They enact their dialectical struggle while staying within the social process. Ray seems to share Tagore's notion that an aesthetically profound story will emerge out of the dynamics of shifting relationships—whether familial or social. Ray is careful, however, in avoiding any narrative closure and occasionally even experiments with Tagore's storyline for the purpose. The enigmatic and open-ended film—often achieved through tantalizing freeze-frame—holds out more promise of playing with the relationships among the characters to lead towards a deepening understanding of the individual self.

What Ray's films succeed in creating are vibrant worlds which lend themselves to critical and intellectual discourse. In the wake of the anti-intellectual tendencies of the post-modern milieu, his films resist the automatic commodification as cultural products. As Sragow writes, ‘Ray's movies don't usually leave audiences purged by pity and terror; they leave them either sadder but wiser or gladder but wiser. … The viewer's sense that Ray's rivers of feeling have enriched their own emotional sediment’ (1994).

(p.133) III

Texts are cultural artefacts and necessarily derive from, pertain to, and reveal certain assumptions and values. Understanding the worlds of experience, knowledge, and understanding to which texts of the Third World point and from which they emerge can clarify the cultural significance and semantic relevance of those texts. Two auteurs who try to illuminate the contexts which frame the texts are Tagore and Ray. Their mode of narrativizing women's experiences to examine and interrogate received ideas and assumptions of the society and community regarding women help in conceptualizing what is fundamentally a matter of the consciousness that energizes and shapes women's lives. Representations such as Tagore's and Ray's create, in the words of Sunder Rajan, ‘spaces’ that are really ‘temporalities, (or) moments in time when certain possibilities coalesce’ (1993: 142). Hence, in some basic ways the women from discrete historical epochs of Tagore and Ray do not appear to be so distant from each other after all. The issues that women grappled with in colonial times remain nearly the same in the postmodern ethos. Not merely to survive, but to seek one's happiness in and through oneself seems to be the end of the rainbow that beckons every woman. What appear new are the different trajectories that women could now follow. The obvious questions to ask would be: were there another Charulata, Bimala, Ratan, Monimalika, or Mrinmoyee, would they make the same choices? Or, could other possibilities coalesce towards a new future?


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