I am fascinated by the talented Bengali film makers, story writers, directors, actors, singers and music directors of Hindi movies. Most of them have brought something refreshingly new, challenging and memorable to the table. I am indeed working on an essay to bring out their contribution to the Hindi cinema; which is mammoth indeed. This essay or article is only about one aspect, that is, movies based on neglect of women in the emerging Bengali society. Now, I am not saying there is no neglect of women in other Indian societies; after all, just a few years back, when female foetuses were found abandoned in a well in Patiala (Punjab), it shocked our nation to know that even the state that touts itself as the most progressive has scant regard for the female child. It is just that the projection of these issues has been so repeatedly and so well done in Bengal based Hindi movies that it is worthy of comment.
Bringing out treatment of women and making movies wherein a woman is the main protagonist has been the focus of many Bimal Roy movies. Take the 1953 movie Parineeta (literally translated as ‘Married Woman’) for example. Meena Kumari as Lalita, daughter of a poor clerk Gurcharan, is in love with Shekhar Rai, a landlord’s son, portrayed by Ashok Kumar and they are married in their minds. All is well except for the poverty in her family that makes her father to take loan from a kind hearted gentleman Girin. By an unfortunate misunderstanding, it is rumoured that Lalita is sold off to Girin.
The movie, based on a story by Sharat Chandra Chattopadhayay went on to receive the Filmfare Best Film award as also got its heroine Meena Kumari, the Best Actress award.
Except for his first movie Do Bigha Zameen (which, by the way, was not just the first movie to win Filmfare Best movie award but also the first Indian movie to win an international award at Cannes Film Festival) that was based on Indian neo-realist movement, all his other Hindi movies had women as the main protagonists. After Parineeta, we had Biraj Bahu starring Kamini Kaushal, Madhumati, Sujata and Bandini.
For depicting the theme of neglect of women or their desires, which is what this essay is all about, I have picked up four movies: Anuradha, Sahin Bibi Aur Ghulam, Anubhav and Piku.
Anuradha is a 1960 movie directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee with story by Sachin Bhowmick and screenplay and dialogues by Rajinder Singh Bedi. The story based roughly on the novel Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert. Leela Naidu plays the protagonist Anuradha Roy, daughter of a rich father who has earned fame as a singer on All India Radio and in public functions. Shailendra as lyricist and Pandit Ravi Shankar as Music Director have done remarkably well to bring out her feelings through songs: those of blithe happiness when with her father and of sadness and neglect when with her husband Nirmal Chaudhury played by Balraj Sahni. He is an idealist doctor who has taken it upon himself to render selfless service to the rural poor. He is unmindful of the fact that his obsession results in his wife’s talent lying totally atrophied. He doesn’t even remember their anniversary. In the end when he is gifted Rupees 20000 (a princely sum during those days) by a millionaire for saving the life and looks of his daughter who meets with a car accident when traveling with Anuradha’s erstwhile ardent lover Deepak played by Abhi Bhattacharya, his family doctor played by Nasir Hussain brings out that Nirmal Chaudhury is not as deserving of the reward as his wife Anuradha since she sacrificed everything for the sake of her husband. Indeed, in the movie, when Deepak tells her that she hadn’t got anything from her husband, she takes offence to it and reminds him that he shouldn’t be insulting her husband under her husband’s roof. I was immediately reminded of Bimal Roy’s Bandini wherein Nutan is portrayed as Bandini (in bondage) to tradition and her first love Ashok Kumar despite her subsequent relationship with a kind-hearted and understanding jailer Dharmendra. There must be something about the portrayal of a Bengali woman’s undying devotion for her husband as a virtue worth acquiring.
In Guru Dutt’s 1962 movie Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, directed by Abrar Alvi (who was Guru Dutt’s favourite writer and director; they did Aar Paar, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Pyaasa and Mr & Mrs 55 together, in addition to Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam), Meena Kumari as Chhoti Bahu had a very poignant role opposite Rehman as a husband. Rehman was the face if the moral rot in Bengalu feudalism; he’d spend more time in the company of courtesans than with his wife. The movie’s songs are exceedingly beautiful and meaningful, penned by my favourite lyricist Shakeel Badayuni with music by my favourite Hemant Kumar. Two of the songs, sung by Guru Dutt’s wife Geeta Dutt, and picturised on Meena Kumari bring out the intensity of her emotions; Piya aiso jiya mein samaayi gayo re, and Na jaao sainyya chhuda ke bainyaa kasam tumhari mai ro padhungi. Both bring out how she would dress up, do make up, and even drink alcohol to please him enough so that he’d spend time with her rather than with courtesans. This theme is the same as Anuradha’s; which is that a woman would do anything to win the attention of her husband and that husband, irrespective of the treatment meted out to her, is still worthy of veneration.
Cut now to the third movie on this theme: the 1971 movie Anubhav directed by Basu Bhattacharya (who made a trilogy on similar themes with Avishkaar (1973) and Griha Pravesh (1979). In this movie it is Tanuja as Meeta Sen who is facing neglect by her husband Sanjeev Kumar as a newspaper editor Amar Sen. In order to win his attention, she gets rid of all the domestic staff except AK Hangal. It has a positive effect only partly. However, by this time her ex lover Dinesh Thakur as Shashi Bhushan enters the scene. The movie ends with Sanjeev Kumar acknowledging that her past wouldn’t have had a chance to wreck their lives if he had taken care of the present. Her ending dialogue in the movie was: “Main samajh gayi hoon ke tum samajh gaye ho” (I have understood that now you have understood). The movie has some excellent songs sung by Geeta Dutt and Manna Dey on the music of Kanu Roy; three of which are outstandingly beautiful: Meri jaan, mujhe jaan na kaho meri jaan; Mera dil jo mera hota; and Phir kahin koi phool khila, chahat na kaho isako.
The fourth movie, Piku directed by Shoojit Circar, is only different in one respect in that the neglect of the woman, Deepika Padukone as Piku Banerjee, is not at the hands of a husband but by her father, Amitabh Bachchan as Bhaskor Banerjee. He has chronic constipation and gastric condition and he takes it for granted that life of everyone in general and his daughter in particular should revolve around his minute to minute condition. For her, as an architect, there are many embarrassing moments such as when she is busy in her office and news of her father’s latest constipated condition is broken publicly over sms. In his obsession with himself and his constipation in his old age (70 years), he totally ignores her desires. For example, when she is romantically inclined with her co-worker in office, Syed, Bhaskor tells him that his daughter is moody like him and also not a virgin. Bhaskor decides to visit his house in Kolkatta where his brother and his wife live. But, fastidious that he is, he finds going there from Delhi by train or plane unsafe. So, finally, he is driven there by Rana Chaudhary played by Irrfan Khan, who is the owner of a cab company only because none of the drivers want to do duty with Piku due to her moods. He closely observes the totally self-centered, annoying and always complaining habits of Bhaskor and her dedication towards him despite these and tells us, “You have now fallen into the league of great women like Rani Laxmi Bai and Annie Besant.” In the end, Bhaskor dies a kind of death his always wanted – peaceful, no tubes, no ventilator. At a funeral ceremony, Piku tells family and friends, “My father was in peace. No ache or dilemma on his face. And those who know my father, they know, that he only had one problem – constipation. But he was cured of that as well before he passed away. So his death was a happy one. And I’m gonna miss him.”
There are, I am sure, many more such movies in which self-abnegation in comparison to her husband’s or if single, her father’s comfort, happiness and success exemplifies the Bengali women. Bengali women, as shown in such movies are the epitome of self-sacrificing love, unquestionable loyalty to their husbands, and the ones who would display genuine offence if their husbands are insulted in front of them. Portrayal of Bengali women in the movies is perhaps a reflection of their society wherein women are not displayed as sensuous or young or attractive but as devoted wives, mothers and grandmothers. Even when they are neglected or ignored they continue to be devoted wives, mothers, grandmothers and daughters.
There are, of course, dissenting or divergent voices. Anirvan Chatterjee in a January 1997 essay titled ‘Exploring Bengali Women’s History’ abhors the idea and psychology of arranged marriages for Bengali women. She writes, “I find it a bit puzzling how my mother, and other Bengali women like her, could so casually accept the idea of being sent into the houses of men they’d never met, living in a country 8,000 miles away, having their whole future lives’ paths determined for them in a single act outside their control. The thought of being in my mother’s shoes scares me; I picture myself as a much-bedecked lamb being led almost forcibly to the “slaughter” of the marriage ceremony.” However, she also brings out that just two books helped her get a better understanding of Bengali women: Malavika Karlekar’s Voices from Within and Manisha Roy’s Bengali Women.
Despite the motley of divergent views as those of Anirvan Chatterjee, the most endearing image of Bengali woman would continue being the one who’d do anything in her devotion for her man. The 1953 movie Anuradha, for example, has, in the last scene, Anuradha busy sweeping the floor of her husband’s house. Anyone watching the movie would know that for her self-abnegation has been honed into a fine-art. She may be meek in her devotion or she may actually be like Durga as in Sujoy Ghosh‘s 2012 movie Kahaani avenging the disappearance of her husband; the raison d’être for her.
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