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Women: The eternal element of Bengali cinema

The journey of the woman in Bengali cinema for these 100 years not only portrays her as just a character but also charts her emergence as a true powerhouse with exceptional talent and tenacity, giving a new meaning to her individual existence and identity

Given such a loaded topic to write on, with its myriad implications, nuances and complex interpretations, “Contribution of Women in Bengali Cinema” is a theme that is as wide as it is deep.

It is better to have a non-academic approach here, also keeping aside a purely theoretical viewpoint and rather adopting a three-pronged approach. It would include an approach as a woman myself and a fanatic movie buff, the contribution of women as the central or peripheral character and their contribution as a theme.

Looking back at the 100 years of Bengali cinema is a humongous task only because of the legacy of Bengali cinema is a rich pool of inimitable stories, true narratives, a powerhouse of exceptional talent and documentation of real-time giving the world a string of movies that are international in their appeal and have cast an everlasting presence.

When we talk about contribution, we have to first see what role women played in society as that determined their role in cinema which led to their contribution to the industry. Cinema is supposed to map the evolution of mankind and its history and in the last 100 years, the cultural and social paradigm shifts that have occurred in our lives, influencing the language of cinema in turn. Women, their place and position in society, their trials and tribulations, their inner journeys and their inter-sex relationships have seen huge transformations. If sociologically and biologically, women were relegated at the second wrung after men, culturally too the struggle to find a voice and add meaning to their existence has always been a leitmotif in stories told by filmmakers. From the perspective of the sister, mother and wife who was caught between the duties and functions of a family to an independent working woman with an identity of her own right — has been a victory and celebration for women aptly depicted through films. As a woman, this is what interests me the most as I see the metamorphosis of my gender and its contribution to society as a better place to live in with at least a little realisation of the ideals of freedom and equality.

Since it’s impossible to measure the entire warp and weft of lasting characters played by actresses, let’s talk about a few popular and significant ones that have deeply moved me too. What was the topic of one of the first Bengali talkies? According to me, it is the story of a strong woman and her fate in society. In Dena Paona (1931), Soroshi played by Nibhanani Devi has a veritable presence but her circumstances and her decisions revolve around the men in her life. From that starting point, women have always been the focal point of family dramas and romances but not as the central character but the central point of exploitation, the tension around the dogma of family values and most importantly, as how they were viewed and understood and objectified by the world around them rather than from the point of view of their own desires. This is the crux of the matter — women’s contribution as characters and themes as how their roles and choices were defined by others rather than women themselves participating in that choice which is a more recent phenomenon and still a sore point among moviemakers, storytellers and those enacting them. A woman’s gradual emancipation is always directly proportional to her contribution to the tinsel town. 

A woman’s want dictated by society and her desire as claimed by herself — this immense and painful paradox is perhaps brought out best by Neeta played by Supriya Choudhury in Ritwik Ghatak’s seminal work “Meghey Dhaka Tara”, which for me as a woman, as a writer and as a movie-goer is an extremely one that has stayed with me since the first time I saw the film. The film could be about Partition as Ghatak envisioned it but at the same time, the theme rings true even today — the wants and demands of the other versus the need and the desire of the woman.

Talking about the contribution of women, one of the names that obviously come to the mind is Aparna Sen, the director. It’s my personal subjective view, but Sen has contributed in bringing out some of the most versatile and powerful women characters and told their stories in the most sensitive manner that still pulses with vitality and truth. Look how versatile she is, delving into age-old myths, deep-seated emotions and modern-day angst. In “36, Chowringhee Lane”, she lays bare the forlorn uncertainties and vague hopes of Violet played by Jennifer Kendall and the materialistic and the selfish new couple, Nandita and Samaresh played by Debosree Roy and Dhritiman Chatterji — one old lonely woman against the self-interests of the younger woman. Look at “Paroma” beautifully depicted by Rakhi — from a housewife who is happy managing the lives of her husband and children and family suddenly faces questions about her existence and her life — who is she beyond her family? The whole façade is broken and the core issue surfaces — will she only be a survival strategy at the beck and call of her family or will she look inside her and discover her own individual identity?

What’s happening at the current times? 

Moving over the boundaries of her home, a woman is now charting new territories. She is breaking more and more social conventions, the rules she is expected to live by, the cage she has always been put in and she is learning to nurture and live by her own understanding of what is right and what is wrong. However, I feel that in current times depiction of such women has still to undergo a massive change — not too many directors or writers are being able to compress this new age woman who is ambitious, passionate and a go-getter because society as a large is yet to come to terms with that. The change is now more on a personal level — without taking names, contemporary actresses are more aware of themselves, their rights and also display that change in them.

In future, the contribution of women would be under more scrutiny. As we find our voice and our place in the world, it becomes increasingly important as a medium of mass entertainment to properly and with any bias to represent the freedom and strength that women inherently have. It’s high time we celebrate our successes and bask in its glory — both on-screen and off it.

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