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Two Women

It’s 50 years since Bimal Roy’s Bandini and Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar , both women- centric films, were released. Both presented strong women protagonists breaking the mould of the typical heroine of that time. Shoma A. Chatterji recalls:

Shoma A Chatterji
Tue, Sep 3 2013

Illustration: Rajat Dey

About Shoma A

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has authored many books and won several prestigious awards.

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Bimal Roy’s Bandini, starring Nutan in the title role, was based on a novel by Bengali writer with the pseudonym ‘Jarasandha’, famous for his novels about convicts in prison. Bandini is seen as the culmination of Bimal Roy’s command over the language of cinema and his stress on social relevance. It was also his last directorial film.

It was the first Hindi film to depict the story of a woman prisoner convicted for a murder. She confessed to it but without making a plea for forgiveness. The story is told mostly in flashback from the protagonist Kalyani’s point of view. Bimal Roy remained staunchly faithful to Jarasandha’s original story Tamasi.

The imaginative and aesthetic use of sound and imagery through black &white frames to express the loneliness, the sense of alienation, and refusal to feel guilty make Kalyani an unforgettable character. Gulzar made his debut as lyricist for the haunting mora gora anga lai le, mohe shyam ranga dai de in the film.

Nutan communicated mainly with her eyes. She stripped the character of any highly charged emotion or theatrics. She underplayed Kalyani, fleshing her out as a quiet but determined woman with a dignity that belied her prison backdrop and her murderer status. Her reactions are captured through a flood of fleeting emotions on her face, especially in the scenes leading up to the murder and afterwards. Nutan had almost given up films after her marriage. She was pregnant when Bandini was being made but Bimal Roy persuaded her to accept the role.

“Two of my best roles were in Sujata and Bandini she had said, adding, “These films by my favourite director Bimal Roy brought out two unknown aspects of womanhood and fired an intensity not seen in any other film of mine. Nabendu-da (Ghosh) and Bimal-da formed one of the greatest script-writer-director combination duos of Indian cinema.”

Bandini was a commercial hit and also swept the Filmfare Awards the following year for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Writer, Best Cinematographer and Best Sound.

Mahanagar defines a marked departure from Ray’s oeuvre till then. Before Mahanagar, his films were confined either to literary classics, (The Apu Trilogy, Devi, Parash Pathar, Jalsaghar, Teen Kanya) or, to a film based on his own script (Kanchenjungha.) Though Kanchenjungha dealt with the urban Bengali of Kolkata, the Roy Choudhurys in it came from affluent and aristocratic stock. With Mahanagar, Ray took his first step into a lower middle-class Bengali family home in post-Independence India. It was based on a short story by Narendranath Mitra named Abataranika.

The original story placed the husband at the centre. Ray shifted the emphasis to the wife, Arati. This change traced the beginnings of a realistic celluloid representation of the working wife in a middle-class family, her gradual autonomy in the face of economic pressures, and her changing status within the family when she becomes a major earning member

Mahanagar is Ray’s personal statement on the changing values of the traditional, middle-class Bengali family of the city and is a microcosm of changes in urban, social and economic values. It is a positive and realistic statement on the socio-economic changes in urban Bengali life, more through the metamorphosis of Arati from a housewife to a working woman than through other characters in the film. Her body language changes as she evolves from a perfect daughter-in-law to a confident office-worker.

Three moving scenes demonstrate the slow change in Arati. First, when she gets her first pay packet, handed in cash, she shows off her money first to herself, in the bathroom mirror, her nostrils flaring in excitement and pride of achievement. Second, back home, she shows the notes to her husband. Third, in a gesture of generosity, she offers some money to her father-in-law who needs a new pair of spectacles, though he refuses to take it. In the entire film, the camera is alert and intimate.

Subrata, the husband , changes too, as he discovers the happy expression on his wife’s face when she comes home from work while he, jobless now, is forced to stay back at home. From a contented married man very much in love with his pretty wife, Subrata turns into an unhappy man who stoops to keeping a tab on the movements of his wife though there was no reason to be suspicious at all.

However, Ray’s film ends in a positive note as Subrata comes to understand his wife better, that she was the same devoted wife , only the circumstances had changed.

Five decades ago when women characters in general were more an embellishment than women of substance Bandini and Mahanagar stood out for their bold portrayal of women as protagonists, and very strong ones at that.

Trans World Features (TWF)

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