The Portrayal Of Women In These Satyajit Ray Movies Was ‘Radical’ For Their Time

Satyajit Ray was a visionary ahead of his times. His presentation of women feels very contemporary, whether they were single, homemakers, or working women.

Satyajit Ray was a visionary ahead of his times. His presentation of women feels very contemporary, whether they were single, homemakers, or working women.

When I write an original story, I write about people I know first-hand and situations I’m familiar with. I don’t write stories about the nineteenth century – Satyajit Ray

The legend named Satyajit Ray never had social media to flaunt himself but what he had in him was something else. He had a spark to ignite minds.

Born on 2nd May 1921 Ray quit the theatre of life at the age of seventy on 23 April 1992. His father Sukumar Ray was an eminent humorous Bengali poet, author, and playwright, who focused on children, which is the hardest thing to do – to think with a mind of a child and pen them accordingly. I grew up reading Abol Tabol by Sukumar Ray, and my parents gifted me the book Joy Baba Felunath written by Satyajit Ray, on one of my birthdays. I instantly liked the book, it was written very eloquently and was a crime thriller that I read in one go, and watched the movie as well which was also directed by none other than Ray himself.

Here are two of his films which created a major impact on my mind; as a woman, I have always admired the way he portrayed women in his movies.

Aranyer Din Ratri

(Days and Nights in the Forest, Year 1970) 

Based on the novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay, the story revolves around four educated friends with conflicting ideologies. City life takes a toll on them, and they reach out for a land of tribes, Palamau (Bihar), in the middle of nature.

Asim played by Soumitra Chatterjee, is an affluent man who enjoys the company of women but keeps a watch on how women perceive him. Sanjoy played by Subhendu Chatterjee, is a labor executive. Hari played by Samit Bhanjha is a cricketer coping with a heart break. Shekhar played by Rabi Ghosh is jobless.

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They spend their night in a forest guesthouse after bribing the caretaker. Hari meets the Santhal woman Duli, played by Simi Garewal as she approaches them for a drink in the liquor shop. Their decision to lead a bohemian life crumbles when they meet two urban women: Aparna played by Sharmila Tagore and Jaya, Aparna’s sister-in-law, played by Kaberi Bose.

Asim with his Casanova nature tries to flirt with Aparna but Aparna appears far more intellectual than him and keeps her poise. Later in the night, the four again go for a drink and Hari gets upset as he cannot see Duli. That night, the tension peaks when the four go their own way at the village fair. Hari makes love to Duli in the middle of the forest. Aparna though appears composed, points out to Asim that no one has bothered to ask about the caretaker’s wife who is ailing. Sanjoy keeps a grip on himself and refuses to acknowledge Jaya’s bold glances though he cannot deny the fact that he had fallen in love with her. Jaya, in reciprocation, maintains her dignity and doesn’t chase him.

The movie ends with the four men leaving for the city Calcutta; and the caretaker feeling relieved and closing the door of the guest house as an end to the forest adventure.

In the movie Ray, has brilliantly depicted the Santhal woman. She is not portrayed as an object of sex, but as a simple woman, but rugged enough to handle advances of men. She drinks with Hari, has sex with him but Hari ultimately falls in love with her for her natural beauty unlike the flashy make up of urban women. The ladies Aparna and Jaya have been depicted as caring, loving, beautiful, dignified and intelligent which is true since films are candid versions of real life stories. Else why will Mr Ray feature such cognitive characters in his movies?

Also, this movie deals with human emotions. There is a message to men – to behave properly with women even if you get drunk and also, that there is nothing wrong with a woman drinking. You need not narrow down your eyes and look at her as if you are looking at an alien. She is free to do whatever she likes. Be like Duli, simple, ordinary but bold. Mr. Ray said it long back and now let us watch the movie once again.




(The Big City – 1963)

The movie is based on the short story by Narendranath Mitra. In this movie, Ray addressed the importance of financial independence and courage in women.

The story goes back to 1950, where the role of Arati is played by élan Madhabi Mukherjee. She is a housewife who takes up a job of a door to door saleswoman. Her family is orthodox and conventional, but is undergoing tremendous financial crisis. She overcomes her hurdles and proves herself to be a successful working woman. Her jobless husband Subrata played by Anil Chatterjee gets insecure and that makes him cranky when Arati befriends her colleague, the Anglo Indian Edith, played by Vicky Redwood.

The jobless Subrata decides to meet Arati’s boss Himangshu, played by Haradhan Bannerjee, to ease him out of the suspicion. Subrata finds Himangshu a clubbable person and after listening to Subrata’s plight about being jobless, Himangshu promises to look for a job for him as well.

In the meantime, Edith takes leave as she is unwell and upon her return, the once affable Himangshu refuses to believe that she was sick and questions her flippant lifestyle. Edith breaks down and sobs in the ladies washroom which is witnessed by Arati. Arati, the once timid woman, confronts her boss and demands that Himangshu apologise to Edith. Himangshu refuses to apologize and Arati hands him her resignation as she is unable to bear the injustice rendered to another woman like her.

Given to the fact that Arati is the sole breadwinner for her family, she still has the courage to let go off the job which questions a woman’s intentions, and her husband applauds the valour of his wife.

This movie dealt with the message that a woman is no less capable than a man. Arati, a housewife, with a soft and reticent nature had in her an iron clad spirit when it came to injustice. She chose to chuck up a job working with an intolerant person, as she knew she has all the qualities of getting another and a better job. She also did not pay heed to the grudge of her own insecure husband who had no business to sulk in suspicion. Later, he salutes the nerve of his wife too.



Wrijata Samsal writes that “Satyajit Ray was well ahead of his times in the way he represented women in his movies. His films, particularly between 1960 and 1985 reflected contemporariness, in the sense that while the society was not yet able to fathom a separate existence of women other than in relation to men or the struggle inherent in such dynamic existences, Ray portrayed these images successfully in his various narratives – be it in Ghare Baire, Pather Panchali or Charulata […] In his films, female characters were usually carved out with special care. While the Apu Trilogy was mainly centered around the joys and struggles of a poor Bengali boy called Apu – the series stand true only with regards to its other characters, which are predominantly female. His films as Mahanagar ought to show the real questions and challenges a woman faced in her life and how she find solutionsfor them – while also bringing out the difficulties in reconciling various aspects of life – family and traditions, with individuality and career under the overtures of a rapidly changing society. Women on one hand, were portrayed as simple yet latently complicated; on the other hand, they were powerful anchors yet ultimately vulnerable individuals.”

Satyajit Ray was a man ahead of his times, portraying women in a modern way; watch these two films, learn more about how a legendary director respected a woman through the eyes of his motion pictures. Last and not the least, Mr Ray also had a love marriage and he treated his wife with huge respect and often took her advice during making any film.

A version of this has been published here earlier.

Header image source:By Rishiraj Sahoo [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons and stills from Mahanagar and Aranyer Din Ratri

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About the Author

Rimli Bhattacharya

Rimli Bhattacharya is a First class gold medalist in Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology, an MBA in supply chain management and is engaged with a corporate sector. Her essay in the anthology “Book read more...

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