In a very poignant moment in Satyajit Ray’s debut masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955), Sarbajaya, the middle-aged mother who manages to hold together her impoverished family against all odds, notices a fruit lying on the grounds near a neighbour’s garden. She looks around surreptitiously and then quickly picks it up, hides it under the pallu of her sari and sidles away during a stormy afternoon.
In one stroke, for the first time in the history of Indian cinema, Ray demystifies the aura of the all-good sacrificial mother and lays bare a woman who suddenly becomes real without looking petty. Seventeen-year old Dayamoyee, a child-bride played by Sharmila Tagore in Devi (1960), begins to believe in her role of a goddess which is thrust upon her by her conservative father-in-law in 19th century rural Bengal. But when she fails to revive her husband’s ailing nephew whom she doted on, and the child dies, a traumatised Daya begins to suspect her own power and urges her urban educated husband to run away together from the horror of it all.
Arati in Mahanagar, a traditional middle-class urban housewife to take up a job of a sales woman, much against the wishes of her conservative husband and in-laws; she is not prepared for the role but tries hard–and succeeds. But when one of her colleagues–an Anglo-Indian womanis unjustifiably sacked by her racially prejudiced boss, she stands up against him in a moment of impulsiveness and demands an unconditional apology, knowing fully well the inevitability of her own fate. Madhabi Mukherjee delivers a scintillating performance in the role of Arati which is matched in her next film with Ray–Charulata, where she plays a bored housewife to a rich man in late 19th century Calcutta—a dreamer-entrepreneur, engaged in his editorial pursuits. Artistically inclined and sensitive, her loneliness constantly seeks an outlet which she finds in her husband’s cousin when he comes to stay with them. Both are young and bond through their love for literature; and the inevitable happens: she falls in love with him.
Sharmila Tagore, with her cool and urbane screen persona often fulfilled the role of a sensitive and intelligent woman in Ray’s films, acting as a moral touchstone that brings out the male characters into sharp relief that puts them in their places as they are forced to look at themselves in a new light, often through subtle humiliations. In Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) she constantly engages her suitor–played by a suave Soumitra Chatterjee–in a subtle power game where she deliberately lets him win over her to bolster his ego but makes sure that he realises it, till the man’s confidence begins to wear away and he acknowledges his defeat. Similarly, in Seemabadhha (Company Limited) Sharmila plays the role of Tutul, sister-in-law of a senior executive whose rise in the corporate hierarchy is lost on her because she understands the devious machinations behind his success, unlike her complacent elder sister who is married to him–but she does not make an issue out of it.
In Nayak, Sharmila plays the snooty editor of a woman’s magazine who stumbles into the reigning Bengali star (Uttam Kumar) inside the Rajdhani Express, on his way to Delhi to collect a National Award. She overcomes her initial arrogance and interviews him for her magazine. The journalist in her gives way to a compassionate listener as the star lays bare his life, at the end of which she tears away her notes, deciding to keep his story inside her heart rather than expose it to the world.
Ray’s heroines were all ordinary human beings with their warts and frailties–rooted, credible and compassionate. Their moral posturing was devoid of any feminist agenda, but just a trait that transcended their ordinariness and turned them into memorable characters–resilient and admirable.
Ray had once remarked, “I think I have perhaps a subconscious conviction about women–that they are basically more honest, more forthright… because physically they are the weaker sex, there are perhaps certain cmpensating factors in the general makeup of their characters.”
(The author is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)