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The women in movies by Ritwik Ghatak may not be the patriarchy smashing heroines but they are the feminist women we know in our daily lives!
Indian cinema has created a rich history for itself in its existence of over one century. However, of it is not encapsulated within the Hindi cinema industry. When we look beyond the confines of Bollywood, we find some revolutionary, humanitarian and feminist works by directors and artistes in almost every Indian language.
One such Indian film director, screenwriter and playwright was Ritwik Ghatak, an auteur of the Bengali cinema. A contemporary of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, he is known for his powerful and nuanced portrayal of the human condition, particularly in the context of the Bengal Partition.
The subjugation of women and casteist practices of the Bengali bhadrolok (Bengalis of a certain upper/middle class, upper caste social and cultural background) community was explored in his works in detail.
Born in 1925, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Ritwik Ghatak lived through the Bengal famine, the Partition and the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. He won the National Award for Best Story for his film ‘Jukti, Takko Ar Golpo’ (Reason, Debate and Story) in 1974.
The Bangladesh Cine Journalist’s Association awarded him with the Best Director award for his film ‘Titash Ekti Nodi’r Naam’ (A River Called Titash). He was also awarded the Padma Shri for Arts in 1970.
The director whose works contributed to the development of the depiction of realism in Bengali cinema passed away on February 6th, 1976. Here we follow the subversive and feminist lens of Ritwik Ghatak in three of his most significant films. These are Subarnarekha (1965), Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960) and Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titash,1973)
Subarnarekha opens with the depiction of displacement and violence during the Partition of India in 1947 on its eastern front. It follows the life of the protagonist, Sita, a refugee Hindu woman, with her changing circumstances.
The movie explores her relationships with her elder brother, Ishwar, and Abhiram, a lower-caste refugee boy and Sita’s future husband. Ishwar has taken Abhiram under his wing and later Sita goes on to marry Abhiram.
With Subarnarekha, Ghatak explored the hypocrisy of the Bengali bhodrolok. It looked at how, despite facing humanitarian crises, the society proved to be an agent in reinforcing patriarchal and casteist traditions.
Sita was never free. Neither as a sister, not as a wife and nor as an independent woman. She continually tried to sculpt her life the way she wanted to see it. But social stigma and political instability stood in the way of her independent existence.
Her inter-caste marriage with Abhiram caused the disintegration of her relationship with her brother. Sita’s decision to employ her skills in music to earn money was thrashed by her husband.
Her individuality met with resistance, and even violence, at each and every turn and yet we find Sita soldiering on throughout the film. In the end, she could attain the freedom she craved for only in death.
Ritwik Ghatak explored the condition of a woman whose gender identity is intersected by her class position in a capitalist framework. The plot revolves around a lower-middle-class refugee family displaced to a slum and the struggles of the eldest daughter Nita – the sole breadwinner of the family.
Meghe Dhaka Tara traces the exploitation of women of Nita’s social location face on a daily basis. She is gravely exploited in her domestic sphere and entirely unappreciated. Each day, she has to fight a battle that is rigged against her.
In a capitalist and patriarchal society, there is no way out of the oppression for women from lower class/caste positions. But in this social commentary, the subversive element comes in the form of Nita’s realisation that she has been party to the injustices meted out to her. She realises she’d been doing so by never questioning the position her family has pushed her to.
Her body takes the toll of her constantly pushing her boundaries to earn for an unappreciative family. She is diagnosed with tuberculosis and the film wraps up with her soulful cry, “Dada ami bachte chai” (Brother I want to live).
In the beginning of the movie Titash Ekti Nodir Naam (A River Called Titas) a parallel was drawn between Bashanti and the river, Titash. They are both young and lively but one day, as is the cycle of life, decay would come upon them. This film follows an ecofeminist critique of social structures that oppress women and nature to men and culture.
The premise of the film has the rejection of Rajar Jhi by the Malo community and the subsequent natural disaster surrounding the river. Here, the disaster surrounding the river stands as a testament to the interrelation between the oppression of women and the degradation of nature.
After Rajar Jhi’s rejection, the women of the community, including Bashanti come together and form their own society to accomodate Rajar Jhi. This only goes on to prove that the lives of women and nature are closely entangled. And that this is based on the values of equality and compassion, not oppression and subjugation.
The films of Ritwik Ghatak are social commentaries that follow the lives of women and individuals of lower classes or castes. While the context of these is normally Partition and displacement, the social realities haven’t changed much in Bengal, in particular, and even the rest of India. The cinema made by Ritwik Ghatak critiques the oppressive structures of patriarchy and capitalism, that remains true to this day.
Subarnarekha, Meghe Dhaka Tara and Titash Ekti Nadir Naam are all available on Amazon Prime Video.
Picture credits: Stills from the movies mentioned and Bollywoodirect’s Twitter handle
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An undergraduate student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Describes herself as an intersectional
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