The Powerful Women in Cinema: Satyajit Ray’s Cinematic Portraits

Even though they were regional films, Satyajit Ray made powerful cinema. His oeuvre transcends boundaries – geographical, linguistic or otherwise. The women portrayed in his films were detailed and multifaceted in both rural and urban settings.  Let us look back at some of these women of substance, stepping out of our mainstream cinema male gaze to understand how women of Satyajit Ray films cannot be reduced to a cliché. A master at his best!

Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road – 1955)

Apu Trilogy

This film marks the directorial debut of Satyajit Ray and is based on a Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay. It revolves around the life of Apu and his elder sister, Durga. The elder sister, Durga characterized by Uma Dasgupta, is portrayed as inquisitive, caring and a soul close to nature. The wife, Aparna played by Sharmila Tagore, brings matrimonial bliss to Apu’s life in Apur Sansar. She is also seen scribbling a message on her husband’s cigarette packet, reminding him to smoke less! The mother, Sarbojaya essayed by Karuna Banerjee, is seen in the first two films as a complete character who maintains her dignity through the ordeals of poverty-stricken village life and is later reduced to grief by the loss of a child.

Devi (Goddess – 1960)

The film is based in 19th-century rural Bengal, where a 17-year-old Dayamoyee is hailed and proclaimed as a goddess by her father-in-law. It is an adaptation of a short story by Provatkumar Mukhopadhyay. The story is a riveting tale of superstitions and the victimization of women at the whims of mysticism and blind faith. Daya, who is unable and later unwilling to break out of this goddess-like avatar imposed on her, is essayed heart-wrenchingly by Sharmila Tagore.

Teen Kanya (Three Girls – 1961)

Postmaster is about a young orphan girl, Ratan (Chandana Banerjee), eight to ten years of age, who works as a maid in the village postmaster’s house and how the kindness of the new postmaster helps her in learning to read and write. The second story is Monihara (The Lost Jewels), a psychological thriller about a bored married woman, Manimalika (Kanika Majumdar), in a large lonesome mansion and how she finds companionship in the twinkling pieces of her jewelry. The third film is Samapti (The Conclusion), the story of a carefree girl, Mrinmoyee (Aparna Sen), who spends time on swings and chasing squirrels and her transition from a rebellious teenager to a woman in love. This set of three short films is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s stories.

Mahanagar (The Big City – 1963)

Depicting the beginning of the middle-class working wife in a Bengali family of Kolkata; Mahanagar is based on a short story by Narendranath Mitra. A realistic depiction of socio-economic changes in urban life is shown through Arati characterized by Madhabi Mukherjee, who transforms from a stay-at-home housewife to a working wife to share the burden of her extended family. Her husband and in-laws are unable to accept this and come to terms with this cultural shock. It is also Jaya Bachchan’s debut film.

Charulata (The Lonely Wife – 1964)

The film narrates the story of a lonely housewife, Charu played to perfection by Madhabi Mukherjee and is based on the novella Nastanirh (The Broken Nest) by Bengali author Rabindranath Tagore. The film skillfully depicts the predicaments of Charulata and the grey areas of her strong emotional feelings of dissatisfaction in marriage and the confusions of relationships.Charu is a bored housewife ignored by her workaholic husband. It also shows how the arrival of her husband’s young cousin awakens her sexuality and ambitions.


Cover Illustration : Aniruddha Das


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