Feminism Through The Cinematic Lens Of Veteran Bengali Director Rituparno Ghosh

Posted: May 30, 2018

On the fifth death anniversary of veteran Bengali director Rituparno Ghosh, let us take a look at some of his strong female-oriented movies.

A film director, actor, writer and lyricist in Bengali Cinema, Rituparno Ghosh needs no introduction. Born on August 31st 1963 in Kolkata to a documentary film maker and painter father Shri Sunil Ghosh, Rituparno quit the theatre of life on May 30th 2013 after a major heart attack at a very young age of 49.

Extremely introverted, Rituparno suffered a major setback in his personal life, when his mother died followed by his father. His only brother Indranil married and settled elsewhere, leaving Rituparno alone to fight out his own sexual transformation and personal trauma in their ancestral home. Rituparno, who was gay, was considered an icon of the LGBT+ community in Indian Cinema. Having directed dozens of masterpieces in Bengali cinema, he is also a recipient of several awards and accolades.

Here, I would talk about two of his feminist movies:

Dahan (Crossfire-1997)

Based on the novel by Suchitra Bhattacharya, Dahan is about a newlywed couple – Romita, played by Rituparna Sengupta and Palash played by Abhishek Chatterjee  who are attacked in an open street. The goons beat up Palash and molest Romita and also try to kidnap her. Inspite of appealing for help, no one comes forward to save the couple except for a young school teacher – Jhinuk, played by Indrani Halder. Jhinuk is soon hailed by the press as a heroine and makes front page news but her only intention is to punish those guilty.

Romita, who also wants justice for herself is left subdued by her in laws and her callous husband, who in a fit of rage, not only misunderstands his wife but also rapes her. Here Jhinuk, whose life is inspired by her grandmother played by Suchitra Mitra, stands by Romita, remaining undeterred even as the victim’s family has turned their backs on her.

Male predominance is portrayed in the film when Jhinuk is asked embarrassing questions by the defence lawyer. One of the assailants comes from a political background as a result of which, the abusers are left scot free. The film ends with Romita writing a letter to her sister in the US and is seen contemplating on settling on her own by ending her marriage.

Jhinuk, on the other hand, talks to her grandmother about the chain of incidents and her grandmother shares pearls of wisdom from her own life,  asking her to follow her heart. Jhinuk bids goodbye to her grandmother after she accepts to marry her fiancé while her conscience is firmly grounded to the fact that women should be independent, both emotionally and financially. Her grandmother silently approves of her decision.

 

Bariwali (The lady of the house-2000)

Bariwali revolves around a lonely, unfortunate and sad middle aged woman – Banalata, played by Kiron Kher. Banalata leads a secluded life, ever since her would be husband dies from a snake bite, the night before the wedding . With no close family members, she lives with her young maid servant Malati and a man servant who runs errands, still unable to come in terms with her broken marriage.

Her life takes a turn when she accords her sanction to rent out a part of her sprawling ancestral home to a film production unit. Her once empty house is suddenly filled up by glamorous people including the beautiful actress Sudeshna, played by Roopa Ganguly and appealing director Deepankar played by Chiranjeet Chakraborty.

Deepankar flirts with Banalata and, inspite of knowing that Deepankar is married and that his former lover Sudeshna still harbours feelings for him, Banalata finds herself attracted towards him. To her, Deepankar is the perfect man she had been looking for. The shooting ends with the film unit retiring to the city life making her lonely pangs all the more acute.

Banalata writes letters to Deepankar, but all her letters are unanswered. In the meantime, the film gets released and Banalata decides to watch the movie along with Malati. The day they decide to go out, Banalata receives an envelope containing a pay cheque towards the rent for her leased estate to the shooting crew. But, there is no note from the director. Heartbroken, she realizes the director had used her only for his personal gain and nothing else. The movie ends on a poignant note with Banalata returning to her mundane chores of household with all her dreams to start her life with Deepankar getting crushed.

The movie has a strong message. Although Banalata falls for a nihilist man like Deepankar, she doesn’t show her vulnerable side of needing a man in her life who completes her. On the contrary, she carries herself as a woman who is capable enough to handle her life by herself.

In both of the above films, Ghosh has depicted the brutality of the patriarchal society through his cinematic lens. Ghosh also follows the the footsteps of directors like Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal in making parallel cinema which depicts the status of women in Indian society. He understands the convolutions of relationships, the complexities of emotion and the silent struggles of women in the everyday family life in India.

Alison Macdonald  quotes in her paper, ‘Real and Imagined Women: A feminist reading of Rituparno Ghosh’s films’: “The curious visibility of women (Roy 1995:10) in Indian society is the impetus for this investigation of Ghosh’s films. ‘Femininity’ although on one hand is revered and worshipped publically, most notably through cultural emphasis on motherhood, the prevalence of Goddess worship in Hindu religion and the emergence of popular goddess cults such as Jai Santoshi Ma, it is concomitantly narrowly defined in the public media in such a way that continues to position and represent ‘femaleness’ in problematic and contradictory ways. This analysis of a selection of Ghosh’s films draws upon the work of Indian scholars who have aptly explored and criticized this problematic rendering of gender in Indian visual media.”

To conclude, I would say that it is time to commemorate Rituparno films as a nudge to society in order to break the misogynistic attitude towards women. We have invested enough money watching entertainment films with silly gravity defying stunts and songs. Why not enter the genre of parallel cinema and watch Ghosh’s two award winning feminist movies in this era?

Ghosh has also directed few other women centric movies like Unishe April (April 19), Chokher Bali (Passion play) and Raincoat. So what are you waiting for? Go watch these movies by Rituparno Ghosh and laud him for such films which help in transforming the lives of people.

 

Images source: Rituparno Ghosh: Bollywood Hungama [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, and movie stills

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Rimli Bhattacharya is a First class gold medalist in Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of

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