Be it questioning the patriarchal reference frame or becoming the silent warrior, the workforce in parallel cinema, or the trouble-some mother-in-law in potboilers – the portrayal of the mother in Bengali cinema as the bearer and nurturer is expected and at the same time rational. These are some important depictions of a time and a society where moral values had a deep resonance with the status of the mother.
Sarbajaya in ‘Pather Panchali’ and ‘Aparajito’
Satyajit Ray, to Bengalis, is a subtle weak point after Tagore. There is a delicate semblance in the psyche of the two auteurs which is heightened as Ray used Tagore’s pieces for some of his most resonant films. Interestingly, Tagore’s women were, in most of the cases, far ahead of their times. Tagore had kept them individuated, strong and dynamic – equal to men and at times superior in terms of moral virtues and emotional quotient. It is by design, Tagore kept his female protagonists child-less – from Binodini to Charulata, from Bimala to Mrinal.
It has to be noted that Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay whose novels were arguably more popular than Tagore’s at that time had placed the women at the feet of their men, subservient. Ray’s women characters from Charu to Karuna to Bimala have all been childless as well. In ‘Mahanagar’, Arati had a son but it was not their relation which got precedence in the narrative. Ray, like Tagore, placed his women in relation to their men and not foregrounding them primarily as the mother of the children of the male protagonists.
Shades of incestuous inklings in ‘Devi’
In ‘Devi’, which is one of his most political films Ray slants at the religious cowardice that forcibly commodifies the young daughter-in-law as the ‘Goddess’ incarnates based on an ambiguous dream awakening. In reverse mimesis, the relationship between the old zamindar (as the devoted ‘son’) and the ‘Goddess’ daughter-in-law (mentioned every time as the ‘mother’, though she was childless in reality) was grounded within religious overtones and has definite shades of incestuous inklings.
The manipulator type in ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’
For Ritwik Ghatak, the entire positioning of identity was different than that of Ray. Whereas Ray’s narration had primarily been based on the male-female coupledom linked on the basis of love or marriage relation, Ghatak’s testament had been mostly on a primordial one. In almost all his iconic films we find Ghatak tearing his heart on the issues of the partition of Bengal and in doing so he puts forth his characters who are mostly siblings and not a couple in the sexual sense. Even in Ajantrik where there is no sister to Bimal, Jagaddal – the car takes up the position of companion as the fellow taxi drivers tease Bimal – “Is the car a woman?” In a later scene, Bimal confides to another character that Jagaddal came into his life the year his mother passed away! In the lyrical Subarnarekha, Iswar and Sita, the brother and the sister form the core and Iswar would think Sita to be his long-lost mother. Once, Sita would whisper to Iswar that she indeed was his mother. In the climax when Iswar visits Sita’s room for sexual favours unknowingly Ghatak slaps the middle-class hypocrisy as he once commented – “(one) has to understand that whichever woman the brother visited would have been his sister”. For Ghatak, the brother-sister duo is representative of the two halves of Bengal – the East (now Bangladesh) and the West (in India), the offspring of undivided Bengal as he sings “Keno cheye achho go Ma, mukho paane” – a Tagore song in his last film Jukti, Takko ar Gappo.