Whether you term him to be a liberal minded man or you call him a feminist, one cannot ignore the fact that the women characters in the films of the late Indian film maker Satyajit Ray are a few steps ahead of the time. They had a personality of their own irrespective of the socio-economic background that they came from. This gave them a charm of their own and has made them immortal not only in India but also in world cinema. Be it an upper middle class lady of the nineteenth century or a lower middle class woman or a tribal woman, the characterizations have been distinct and have made the women characters look real in all Satyajit Ray Films. The best and the finest characterizations have been developed by the director on the basis of the works of Tagore. This link could be possibly traced to the fact that both were from culturally progressive families, were Brahmos and had creative and talented women in their families. This strengthened the bond between them to a great extent.
Extra-marital affairs of women in Ray’s films
Chastity in a woman is always considered pivotal. A woman has to be chaste no matter whatever maybe the issue. Ray broke this tradition of so called chaste women with the film Charulata. Charulata is the quintessential Ray heroine. Madhabi Mukherjee’s portrayal of this character made the dilemma of the women of the 19th century come alive wonderfully on screen. Based on Tagore’s novel Nastaneer, the film is about a culturally sophisticated woman who writes poetry, can do fine embroidery works and has a great eye for aesthetic beauty. However her husband does not devote enough time to her as he is busy with his work as a social and political reformer. As a result her loneliness takes a toll on her and she eventually develops an affair with her own brother-in-law. The story was way ahead of the times and highlighted women in a different way as opposed to the way traditional Bengali cinema viewers were accustomed to viewing the heroines.
Another instance of this extra-marital affair scenario has been shown in the film Ghare Baire which is on Tagore’s novel The Home and the World. Bimala is made to take tuitions in Engish by her husband. This leads to the fueling of the yearning to know about the outside world in her. On the arrival of her husband’s friend she is mesmerized by his rendering of stories of the Swadeshi Movement and gets involved in an extra-marital affair with him. Tagore’s stories found the best expression in the hands of Ray as both Tagore and Ray were thinkers who thought much ahead of their times. These stories are now rampant in Bengali cinema. But the time in which Ray made them required courage and guts to portray such issues and such women characters on screen.
Superstitions against women in Ray’s films
Ray, like Tagore was a Brahmo. Hence he was against the ill-practices of the then Hindu religion. With the film Devi, he showcased the position of women in the then mid-twentieth century Bengal society. The treating of a woman as a deity and how this had a negative influence on her mental health was shown in the film. Despite feeling repressed, the women could not protest. With little dialogues, Ray made the most of this unjust situation with the help of silences-As silence speaks more than a thousand words.
Untouchability was also another issue raised by the film maker in his film Sadgati. A Dalit woman played by Smita Patil was oppressed by the Brahmins. How she protested against them was shown in the film. This kind of thought was revolutionary and raising these issues in the films was also not thought of by the audience.
Women as vehicles of change in society
In films like Mahanagar, Seemabaddha, Aguntuk, Kanchenjunga and Shakha Prosakha, the female characters have played a chief role in bringing out corruption or going against male hegemony or even raising questions on the societal prejudices. All these aspects made them flesh and bone characters with which the modern audience can relate to even today. Therein is the universality of the films made by the late film maker. He surely knew women better than many of his contemporaries. When compared with his first film Pather Pachali which did not have such strong female characters, the range which the director displayed later on never failed to impress the audience. Ray did not showcase the men as harbingers of change but let his female characters take the lead.
Ray’s women were better evaluators of situations and knew how to handle them deftly. Despite the films made in a time when heroines had the typical song-dance sequence for them, the films of Ray showed them completely in a new light. They were humane, made errors, listened to their hearts even fought against injustice. It will not be wrong to say that Ray could also foresee the future. The women he portrayed in his films are the new modern Indian women. The women characters of Ray were liberated, had an inner voice which they listened to and acted upon, something that is now the way of life for modern Indian women.