Article Bengali

Women's Day special: 5 bold female characters from Bengali cinema

From Supriya Choudhury in Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) and Rakhee in Parama (1984), to Konkona Sensharma in Dosar (2006), Bengali cinema has been aflush with strong women characters, played to perfection by some of the finest actresses.

Roushni Sarkar

The golden era of Bengali cinema, which lasted till the late 1970s, is considered so not only because most of its pioneers and giants emerged and contributed their finest work in this period, but also because they challenged established norms and introduced a critical scenario that led to the transformation of perspectives, eventually getting reflected in society as well.

Some of the woman-centric films made in this era are examples of such brave attempts that ushered in gender politics and inspired audiences to look at the evolving man-woman equation against the changing scenario of the time.

While the celebrated troika of Bengali filmmakers — Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak — defined the path by introducing new-age women in their socially relevant films, others like Aparna Sen and Rituparno Ghosh continued the legacy in the following generations.

On the 109th International Women’s Day, looks back at five of the most significant bold woman characters of Bengali cinema.

Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960)

Supriya Choudhury in Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960)

Inspired by Shaktipada Rajguru’s novel, Ritwick Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara remains a path-breaking film on Partition. The film features Nita, played brilliantly by Supriya Choudhury, a young woman who sacrifices all her dreams and hopes while being continuously exploited by destiny and by her refugee family. As the family's sole breadwinner, Nita takes up the job of a school teacher while her brother (Anil Chatterjee) keeps pursuing his dream of becoming a classical singer.

Nita’s compassionate and helping nature is taken for granted by her parents, who are almost robbed of their conscience and sympathy by abject poverty and the loss of identity caused by the forced migration from East Bengal to Calcutta. Nita becomes the stark face of the overall degradation that followed Partition. She loses her fiancé, then her job, and eventually contracts tuberculosis, waiting for death to free her from all the mortal burdens she had to forever shoulder.

Supriya Debi's intense performance as Nita, who never breaks down until the last scene, when she ardently expresses a wish to live even though life has only ever offered her a relentless struggle, remains one of the most celebrated performances in Indian cinema.

Arati in Mahanagar (1963)

Madhabi Mukherjee in Mahanagar (1963)

Mahangar was not only Satyajit Ray’s first full-fledged urban film that dealt with contemporary social, political and economic issues, but it also introduced the new-age urban woman Arati, played by Madhabi Mukherjee, a housewife who takes up a job to support her family which is struggling with financial pressures.

Arati starts working as a door-to-door saleswoman. While her husband Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) initially supports her, Arati’s quick prosperity at her job just as quickly makes him insecure.

Arati is a rebellious figure as she values her independence and work ethic even when her family is unable to take her progress positively. While her family sinks into moral depravity and brings about its own doom, Arati’s financial independence and social recognition make her more morally sound.

According to Madhabi Mukherjee, when Satyajit Ray first narrated the script to her, she found Arati’s character to be an unprecedentedly liberated female character in Indian cinema.

Juxtaposed against the character of Nita from Meghe Dhaka Tara, Arati did not allow herself to be taken for granted. While her husband continuously judged her and suspected her at her field of work, Arati had the courage of conviction to hand over her resignation to her boss when the latter fired one of her colleagues unreasonably.

At the end of the film, it is her moral courage that inspires her husband, who assures Arati, with due respect, that one day both of them will have jobs to support their family.

Chinu in Ekdin Pratidin (1979)

Mamata Shankar in Ek Din Pratidin (1979)

Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Pratidin is one of the most prominent testaments of how women are victimized by patriarchy and how society functions according to parameters set by patriarchal systems.

Much like Arati and Nita, Chinu (Mamata Shankar) is the sole breadwinner of her family, consisting of her parents, two sisters and a young brother. One day, Chinu doesn’t return home though her schedule gets over. Her disappearance not only raises suspicion among her neighbours, cramming up in the same old shabby house they live in, but also within family members who are well aware of her dedicated and sincere nature.

Chinu’s older sister cannot help but blame her parents for the disappearance and tells them it is Chinu’s right to choose to live her life on her own terms, not on the terms of society, for she is continuously bearing the burden of her family.

The film narrates the incidents that gradually take place that night as the family waits, increasingly impatient and nervous, for Chinu's return. With each passing hour, they start preparing themselves for the worst.

In the end, when Chinu finally gets home, no one bothers to ask why she was delayed. Neighbours slam her and her family’s reactions baffle her. While Chinu herself refuses to explain anything, she tries to unearth the reasons for her family’s numb response. Didn’t they expect her to return, or were they just satisfied that their sole breadwinner had returned safely?

Like most of Sen’s films, Ek Din Pratidin creates an air of critique and disturbs the minds of the audience, keeping Chinu’s character at the centre.

Parama in Parama (1985)

Rakhee in Parama (1984)

Aparna Sen’s award-winning film Parama explored female sexuality and agency like never before, with the character of housewife Parama (Rakhee) at the centre. A quintessential middle-aged housewife, Parama is hardly aware of herself, never going beyond the roles she plays as housewife and mother in her big joint family. Her worth lies in the meals she makes and the service she provides every minute to every family member.

Many years after she gets completely settled in the household, young photographer Mukul Sharma (Rahul) admires her striking beauty. However, Mukul senses the confines she lives in and unearths the soul beyond her beautiful face. The married Parama finds a new lease of life in an extramarital affair. She even takes up playing the sitar after a long gap.

Though Parama knows Mukul is not there for her forever, she dives into the new liberation after some initial hesitance. Eventually, she realizes that Mukul had simply taken advantage of her and she is embarrassed before her husband and her entire family. However, Parama never regrets her decision, even after the betrayal. Instead, she chooses to take up a simple job, despite being the housewife of a prosperous family, only to be able to hold on to the freedom she has recently experienced.

Kaberi in Dosar (2006)

Konkona Sensharma in Dosar (2006)

Rituparno Ghosh’s Kaberi (Konkona Sensharma) is one of the most modern interpretations of a woman on screen. In the film, Kaberi discovers her husband’s extramarital affair after he meets with an accident. Kaberi is devastated while her injured husband, hospitalized, does not mind moving on with his life quickly. He makes his best efforts to repair the damaged equation with his wife.

In Kaberi’s mind, divorce is the only solution to the wreck that has apparently been caused by the extramarital affair. However, as time passes and she continues to take care of the health of her husband, she gradually begins to get transformed into a friend rather than an insecure wife.

Kaberi is one of the few women in Indian cinema to take an objective look at her damaged marriage and eventually strive to give it a chance. According to Konkona Sensharma, Kaberi was one of the most complex characters she has played. She also felt it was a rare opportunity to render such a progressive and modern character.

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Women's Day