Ray’s women: Strong but vulnerable

The young working women portrayed by Ray are strong-willed and liberated. They have a body to celebrate and a mind to chase their own dreams

Ray’s women: Strong but vulnerable

Amitava Nag

Most of Ray’s early films, including the ever-so-brilliant Apu Trilogy, are conspicuous by the absence of a father figure or father-son bonding. In Pather Panchali Harihar returns home only on special occasions like Apu’s birth, Durga’s death and towards the very end when the family finally leaves the ancestral home.

In the third part of the trilogy, Apur Sansar, the father-son relationship is again evident towards the end when along the ‘river of hope’ they walk away towards a future with a hint of more meaningful lives. Apu and Satyajit both grew up under the close eyes of their respective mothers, Sarbajaya for Apu and Suprabha for Satyajit. It is probably not a mere coincidence that Ray’s narratives in a way reflected his own father-less upbringing.

From Indir Thakrun to Sarbajaya in Pather Panchali, from Amulya’s mother in Samapti to Subrata’s in Mahanagar, most of Ray’s early films till the 1960s have prominent mother figures – poignant but important.

In Ray’s earlier films we find the ‘wife’ figuring prominently – Aparna (Apur Sansar), Doyamoyee (Devi), Mrinmoyee (Samapti), Arati (Mahanagar), Manimalika (Monihara) and even the wife-cum-lover Charu (Charulata) and Karuna (Kapurush). Less important but nonetheless noteworthy were the ‘daughters’ - Durga (Pather Panchali), Manisha (Kanchenjungha), Neelima (Mahapurush) or the equivalent opposite ‘daughter-in-law’ in Jaya (Aranyer Din Ratri) and Kamala (Jana Aranya). Significantly, as the protagonists aged in Ray’s oeuvre, the ‘daughter’ gained prominence as in Indrani (Ganashatru), Anila (Agantuk) and others.

In two films, primarily Abhijan and Aranyer Din Ratri, Ray brought in unadulterated sexuality in two of the rural characters. Gulabi and Duli represent an aberration in the ‘bhadrolok’ milieu within which most of Satyajit’s films had always been set. Interestingly, for both these characters who are hinted to be not on the same moral plane as the middleclass protagonists, Ray imported actresses from Hindi cinema – Waheeda Rehman as Gulabi in Abhijan and Simi Garewal as Duli in Aranyer Din Ratri.

But desire of married women to seek fulfilment outside marriage is highlighted, albeit in a repressed way, in Charu (Charulata), Karuna (Kapurush) and Jaya (Aranyer Din Ratri). And then much later in Bimala in Ghare Baire.

However, the desire of the young, working middle-class women was best represented in the first and the last films of Ray’s Calcutta TrilogyPratidwandi and Jana Aranya respectively. Before delving to the Calcutta Trilogy, the film and its character which hold supreme significance are Mahanagar and Arati.

Filmed in 1963, Mahanagar deals with the broken dreams of the Indian middle-class due to economic deprivation and reduced income in the late fifties and early sixties. This often threatened to upset the marital balance of the man as breadwinner and wife as the homemaker. As Arati set out to become a working woman, she reflected the conflict, anxiety and the dilemma of middle-class women forced to leave their home and hearth in search of a living.

Arati is plagued with self-doubt, guilt towards her son and in-laws and probably also towards her husband, who suddenly finds himself incapable of providing for his own family. While Arati oozes kindness and love, she seems sexless, without desire. It is Ray’s mastery how he presents Arati for us, as she identifies herself with the ‘Gharer Bou’ (‘homemaker’) whose venturing out of home is not out of choice but out of compulsion to feed the family. She puts her own needs last, the family is her priority, working and retiring from work depend on the needs of the family. Ray portrays the interiors of her household as closed spaces, cluttered and messed up. It is only at her workplace that she has space and a mirror to put on a dash of lipstick or even the time to look at herself.


The mirror – to reflect and to expose the self- act as a metaphor for Sutapa in Pratidwandi. Sutapa is the unmarried sister of the protagonist Siddhartha. She is the lone earning member amongst the two siblings, a widowed mother and a retired uncle. Working and ambitious, we find her self-reliant, a confident woman with a mind of her own and keen to groom herself. She is shown taking lessons in Western dance which in those days was quite rare for a typical middle-class household.

Furthermore, she indicates her willingness to expose her body if suitable modelling opportunities came her way. Conscious of her curves, having spent much time preening in front of the mirror on the dressing table, she is less inhabited. Unlike Arati in Mahanagar, who at best wished to possess a pair of new slippers to be at par with other salesgirls, Sutapa does not mind using her seductive charms to move ahead.

In Pratidwandi, Ray introduces a nurse who is also a prostitute. She is an expatriate, remains unnamed, is identified only by her tresses and her frivolous attempts to woo Siddhartha. In similar visual patterns Ray equates two triangular compositions – Sutapa, the mirror and Siddhartha; and the prostitute, the mirror and Siddhartha. If the compositional equivalences are subtle, Ray leaves no uncertainty in equating Sutapa with the prostitute in the dream sequence of Siddhartha.

In it we find a disturbed Sddhartha looking at his Naxalite brother being shot as a nurse rushes to his rescue much to Siddhartha’s dismay. Only when she is close that we and Siddhartha realise that it is actually Sutapa, the face dissolving into Keya, Siddhartha’s girlfriend. Siddhartha looks visibly relieved. Siddhartha, not in his conscious state but in his dream, equates his sister to a prostitute. Yet as audience we seek solace in the understanding that the nurse is an outsider – without a name or an origin.

Ray relentlessly whips us further in Jana Aranya where the friend’s sister Karuna is herself in the flesh trade. The moral dilemma and decadence are now to be found inside our own home, in our own society and not imported from outside. If in Pratidwandi Sutapa exposes herself before the mirror, in Jana Aranya Karuna exposes herself in front of an open window. The mirror and the window somehow merge as a frame of liberation and sexual freedom.

Ray soon went back to making detective films and the second part of his films based on fables involving his iconic characters Goopi and Bagha. He would later take up his long-cherished project – Ghare Baire. But his depiction of contemporary women of the early ‘70s needs special mention for his understanding and empathy.

When mainstream cinema was boasting of the rise of an angry young man taking up arms against the ills of society, Ray depicts the middle-class Bengali male as confused, restless, uncertain about his sexuality and a victim of questionable moral ethics.

The young working women, in contrast, are strong-willed and liberated. They have a body to celebrate and a mind to chase their own dreams.

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