The crisis of Ray’s historicism is nowhere more acutely displayed than in his abandonment of the “women’s question.” His early works demonstrated an abiding interest and commitment to the women’s position in modernity and modernization. There was even an archetypal “Ray woman,” a normative female subject that emerged from his early corpus. He articulated her characteristics as follows: “Although they’re physically not as strong as men, nature gave women qualities which compensate for the fact. They’re more honest, more direct, and by and large, they’re stronger characters. I’m not talking about every woman but . . . [t]he woman I like to put in my films is better able to cope with situations than men.” Charulata was the archetypal Ray woman. “At the end of the film Charu is established as a figure of self-consolidation,” observes Keya Ganguly, even though “self-knowledge” is exacted at the steep price of her marital life. It was perhaps her self-consciousness that modernity is a one-way street from which there is no turning back, or in Ganguly’s words, being reconciled “to the burden of being a nabeena (modern woman) rather than a pracheena(traditional woman),” that made Ray’s Charulata markedly different from the literary original upon which the film was based.
Ray’s early films offered rich insights into histories of modern conjugality, family, and the self in colonial and early postcolonial India, including tragic reflections on those who were unable to enter into the developmental arc, such as the women in Pather Panchali and Aparajito.
Ray’s early films variously engaged with the project of the “new patriarchy” that arose in Bengal from the mid-nineteenth century onward. The ideology of “new patriarchy” was an uneasy and contingent compromise between two extremes—a Western-inspired romantic model of the couple and the nuclear family, and an Indian extended family that gave little ideational space to the couple. The films of his early corpus directly address such issues as the status of the couple in the joint family, the place of the educated and/or working woman in such a family, and questions of modern subjectivity in a rapidly modernizing society. Thus, in Charulata and The Big City, the emergence of women as modern subjects is mapped through education, writing, employment, and protest, even as that emergence places tremendous pressure on the couple form and the family. The World of Apu and Devi explored the possibilities of, and challenges to, companionate romantic love within the form of arranged marriage. Considered together, Ray’s early films offered rich insights into histories of modern conjugality, family, and the self in colonial and early postcolonial India, including tragic reflections on those who were unable to enter into the developmental arc, such as the women in Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956). The city films represent the end of that project of individual, societal, and historical development.
Women in the city films, on the other hand, are ciphers, an admission perhaps of the fact that Ray was more confounded by the “new” women he actually saw around him than he was by men. The films are centered on the male protagonists. Their complexities and quirks are fleshed out in much greater detail than the women’s, even when the latter occupy considerable screen time and space, as in Company Limited. Women, insofar as they feature in the city films, are narrative devices whose function is to deepen our view of the crisis in masculinity. This helps us understand why the female characters are quite different from their counterparts in the novels from which the films were adapted. The novels portrayed them as weak, both within the family and in society. In the films, they are far more subversive and sardonic, shaming the male protagonist’s masculinity but without offering prototypes for a future, whether feminist or patriarchal. They do not fit the standard model of the heroine or vamp in Indian cinema. Contemporary critics who spilled a great deal of ink on Ray’s deviations from literary originals in the context of his early films say nothing on the question of adaptation when it came to the city trilogy, let alone on the significance of the female characters in them.
In between the early films and Home and the World, he noted that “we had the Calcutta stories which deal mainly with jobless young men or men with jobs.” His focus on men may be understood as symptomatic of his perception of the contemporary moment as a crisis of masculinity.
Ray made no bones about the fact that the city films were about men. In between the early films and Home and the World (1984), he noted that “we had the Calcutta stories which deal mainly with jobless young men or men with jobs.” His focus on men during this period may be understood as symptomatic of his perception of the contemporary moment as a crisis of masculinity. The resolute focus on men, in my opinion, signaled his inability to penetrate the world of contemporary women. As a result, we never explore women’s interiority in these films in the manner of Charulata, The Big City, and Devi. At best, women in the city trilogy are shown as impressionable and uncertain. To the extent that the films focus on women, it is to highlight the predicament of men: the male loss of control over normative scripts of family, conjugality, and social order, upon which the “women’s question” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was predicated.
Commenting on the character of the sister-in-law, Tutul, in Company Limited, Ray observed,
[T]he sister-in-law is in a tragic situation, because she came to Calcutta in order to find out what social success . . . and . . . her elder sister’s life with her executive husband was like. She’s disheartened by what she finds, but on the other hand she is not so sure that she can go back to the revolutionary and marry him. She doesn’t know how seriously involved with him she is. . . . She is in Calcutta because she had this great weakness for her brother-in-law, when she was a little girl in her teens. She hasn’t seen him for six or seven years, and now that maybe he’s such a success, let’s see what he is like, whether he has changed completely . . . So she arrives, and at first everything seems all right. But when the crisis comes . . . he collapses completely. It’s evident that he can only think about his own success, his own career going forward.
Kauna and Tapu in the films are a far cry from their literary depictions. . . There is no “reproductive futurity” in them as marriage or children are never invoked; nor are they femme fatales of Hollywood film noir who have some scheme that will be revealed by the end of the film.
Rejecting the interviewer’s suggestion that “this girl, in her relationship with the revolutionary, really poses a moral and political solution to the problems the film raises,” Ray declares, “she’s uncertain,” and disillusioned with the life she came to see. Of Shyamalendu, the male protagonist, however, Ray had more clarity. “He’s part of a bureaucratic and commercial machine, which has no place for one single man. If you want to live in a society, you immediately become part of the pattern, and that drives you into something you may not have been from the beginning. This man clearly has two sides: . . . his private feelings and his conscience, but the system forces him to dissemble them and to think only of his security and advancement.” There is merit in some critics’ argument that men such as Shyamalendu reveal themselves as full-blown on-screen characters thanks to women such as Tutul. It follows from these observations that the city films are about the psychodynamics of the contemporary man. Women function as the means by which male characters see themselves.
Kauna (The Middleman) and Sutapa/Tapu (The Adversary) are the earning members in their respective families in both the novels and the films. In her literary rendition, Kauna (Shiuli in the novel) is a demure young girl, quivering with shame as her family’s dire circumstances compel her to prostitution. Tapu in the novel is an emotional and headstrong girl who is forced to drop out of college after their father’s death and find a job so that the two brothers can continue their education. Her boss exploits her good looks until one day, in a defiant fit, she hooks up with a neighborhood wastrel, losing her brother’s affections forever.
Ray’s abdication of the effort to render women and their actions legible should not be seen as failure. They were a gesture in humility, an acknowledgment that postcolonial women’s histories were not fully legible by the terms established during the anticolonial, nationalist era resolution of the women’s question.
Kauna and Tapu in the films are a far cry from these literary depictions. But it is difficult to classify them into types. There is no “reproductive futurity” in them as marriage or children are never invoked; nor are they femme fatales of Hollywood film noir who have some scheme that will be revealed by the end of the film. While both women display a kind of brittleness on the surface, there is no way of guessing what goes on in their minds. What we make of them is a function of the ways in which they are projected in the imagination of the men who accompany them on-screen. For example, when Tapu demonstrates her dance moves to her brother on the decrepit, poorly illuminated terrace of their home, we see her in Siddhartha’s imagination as partying, drinking, and smoking with wealthy men. Likewise, we learn very little about the nurse who moonlighted as a prostitute. Siddhartha’s disgust and bewilderment when his friend takes him to her apartment is the film’s focus. Women are figments of his unconscious who appear in his fevered dreams. Similarly, in The Middleman, when it emerges that the prostitute whose labor would help Somnath secure a contract was his friend’s sister, Ray’s camera captures the perturbance produced by that knowledge in the male protagonist. Kauna, the prostitute, remains inscrutable. During the two-minute-long sequence in the taxi, Somnath’s frontal profile occupies most of the frame with the viewer only occasionally catching a glimpse of Kauna’s side-profile in the dim illumination of traffic lights. Only twice do we see her full face: when she insists on being called “Juthika,” her name for business purposes. In an otherwise perfect film such as The Middleman, described by scholars like Ravi Vasudevan as Ray’s “last substantial film,” the presence of women remains formulaic, anecdotal, and at best mysterious. No other character in the film is as empty as Somnath’s erstwhile girlfriend. I concur with Chidananda Dasgupta’s observation that everything in The Middleman is “carefully built up, brick by brick, towards the shattering climax at the end.” “Everything except the episode with Somnath’s girlfriend. . . Unlike the rest of the film, . . . it is schematic, fitted into the structure because a certain weight was necessary in the direction of his personal affections to balance the preoccupation with career in the rest.” Unlike Ghatak’s female protagonists, whose extreme sacrifice and shame were held out in full display and heightened by melodrama, in Ray’s city films women are emblems of “present-tenseness,” without pasts or futures. But Ray’s abdication of the effort to render women and their actions legible should not be seen as failure. They were a gesture in humility, an acknowledgment that postcolonial women’s histories were not fully legible by the terms established during the anticolonial, nationalist era resolution of the women’s question. As Partha Chatterjee, Tanika Sarkar, and others have shown, the refashioning of Indian patriarchal ideology by cultural nationalists enabled women to participate in western education and politics, and to engage in modern housekeeping practices, writing, and even join the work force, but so long as their behavior and comportment did not cross the boundaries of (a reconstituted) tradition. Laboring outside the home, in other words, did not necessarily produce the “freedoms promised to women in modernity.” Rather, as Keya Ganguly notes, “The solicitation to become ‘working women’ are a problem within capitalist social relations rather than a redoubt against them.” This is the present inhabited by the women in Ray’s city films.
This is an edited extract from Art Cinema and India’s Forgotten Futures: Film and History in the Postcolony (forthcoming from Penguin Random House).