The “wife’s” space of privilege and the “widow’s” space of deprivation: Binodini watches Ashalata being adorned...
... for her husband in Chokher Bali.
Binodini withholds water from Asha.
A smile on Binodini’s face.
Binodini attempts to draw the pampered wife into the zone of unredeemed denial.
Charu in the swing sequence of Charulata...
... rising higher and higher from the ground ...
... and entering an imaginative “reality” in which she bonds with Amal.
Charu comes back to the realm of the real.
Ghosh’s representation of “dialogue” between the wife and the widow: Binodini swings while Asha pushes the swing...
Ascent and the implicit connection between Binodini and Charulata.
Ashalata crosses over into the space of the widow.
The picnic in Chokher Bali.
The characters’ conversation about socio-political issues underscores Ghosh’s commitment to women’s rights.
In his renowned 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin observes that the “aura” of a work of art diminishes with its “technological reproducibility” as reproduction “detaches” the object from the “sphere of tradition.” [open endnotes in new window] Yet, replication also “actualizes” the reproduced object as its receiver interacts with it in her/his individualized context. According to Benjamin, film is the most “powerful agent” for these “two processes” which lead to a “shattering of tradition.” He commends this “destructive, cathartic side” of film which enables “the liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage” (Benjamin 2008, 22) Benjamin, of course, speaks of the reduction in the “aura” of the original artwork as “reproduction” that “substitutes a mass existence” for the “unique existence” of the original (2008, 22). Further, he focuses on the reproduction being able to travel in space, thus eliciting myriad responses in different individualized contexts.
In transferring to screen Rabindranath Tagore’s novel Chokher Bali, Rituparno Ghosh brings us the story of a newly-married couple, Mahendra and Ashalata, who are passionately in love until this love is temporarily tarnished by the arrival into their extended family of a young, intelligent, and educated widow, Binodini. While, in line with Benjamin’s thought, it is certainly true that many copies of Ghosh’s Chokher Bali: A Passion Play (2003, Indian title in English Sand in the Eye) are available and, in some cases, these travel globally and evoke a range of reactions, I would like to focus, more specifically, on Benjamin’s notions of the “shattering of tradition”; the “destructive cathartic side” of film; and his concept of “actualization” or reactivation. What is more important to my discussion is the passage of time, between the publication of Tagore’s text, Chokher Bali, and the predicament of widows in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Bengal on the one hand and the making of Ghosh’s film in the early-twenty first century on the other, rather than the ability of the reproduction (s) to travel through space.
Rupturing “tradition” and
Even in a novel published in 1901-1902, Tagore depicts Binodini not as a widow accepting of her fate but as an intermittently angry, resentful one who interrogates all the injustices that mar her life. However, Ghosh clearly adds more to his cinematic representation of Binodini’s character. Some features of this representation that stand out prominently, particularly for a Bengali audience familiar with Tagore’s Chokher Bali, are her receptivity to physical passion; her willingness to help other widows partake of pleasures that are taboo (such as drinking tea); and her unhesitating use of her widowhood to further her own ends.
In reactivating Binodini’s character not only in ways divergent from Tagore’s novel, but with elements of agency that, hopefully, are more acceptable to an early-twenty first century global audience familiar with struggles for women’s rights, Ghosh participates in the “liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage.” As artist and film director, he challenges the moribund aspects of Bengali (or Indian) cultural tradition, drawing us into the “fixed” space of the widow as defined by this tradition and showing how mobilization in and out of this space is possible. Ghosh’s Chokher Bali brings us the “reproduction” of Binodini in our early-twenty first century context and makes us ponder how entrenched the “aura” of tradition is and what role film plays in disrupting this “aura.”
A brief discussion of Tagore’s novel is relevant here. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is the national poet of India. A prolific writer, he is the author of songs, poems, short stories, novels, essays, plays, and dance dramas. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for his collection of poems Gitanjali. Tagore also founded the Santiniketan School in 1901 (now a part of Viswa Bharati University), an innovative school near Bolpur, West Bengal where students were taught in the midst of nature and encouraged to be self-dependent. A committed social reformer, Tagore was actively involved in rural reconstruction and spoke out against the caste system, untouchability, and the oppression of women among other issues.
His novel Chokher Bali addresses the numerous restrictions in the life of a Bengali Hindu widow, Binodini, and is distinctly Modernist in its exploration of psychological motivations of characters. In the novel, Binodini, who comes to live temporarily in Mahendra and Asha’s family as discussed above, attempts at first to satisfy vicariously her (repressed) desire for love by composing love letters for her friend, the little-educated Asha to send to her husband, Mahendra. Shortly after this, during Asha’s absence from home, Binodini is portrayed as not averse to receiving romantic attention from Mahendra and she creates possibilities for romantic moments as well. However, in the second half of the novel, Tagore depicts her as rejecting Mahendra’s advances, contemptuous of him, and steadfastly in love with his friend Bihari. Following the family’s discovery of Mahendra’s growing attraction for her, she has to leave his household but because of a combination of difficult circumstances, she is obliged to take shelter and travel with him. However, she remains committed to Bihari, and when that man finally encounters her in her travels and proposes marriage, she accepts his love and respect but spares him the social censure of marrying a widow. She offers to engage herself in one of his philanthropic missions instead.
Director Rituparno Ghosh (1963- ), one of the leading contemporary intellectuals and filmmakers from Kolkata, India, is markedly influenced by Tagore as is evident in his sustained use of Tagore’s songs and poems to unfold themes in his films. Ghosh’s canon also reveals a continued interest in women’s issues and rights and more recently a focus on gay sexuality.
His film Chokher Bali departs from Tagore’s original story in two significant ways. First, as addressed above, Ghosh unhesitatingly explores the dimension of passion in Binodini’s life. To do this, he draws on the relationship between Binod and Mahendra, but imbues this relationship with a strong erotic charge. Next, even though he retains and presents Binodini’s romantic interest in Behari, at the close of his Chokher Bali, Binodini is spoken of as having left for an unspecified destination of her choosing. In representing her in this way, unlike in the Tagore text where she spares Bihari social rebuke and yet stays committed to him, Ghosh returns to his investment in women’s rights and autonomy.
However, similar to Tagore’s depiction, in his film, Ghosh represents Binodini as quite the opposite of the generally voiceless and acquiescent traditional Bengali widow. In an early scene of Chokher Bali, she comes across as almost malevolent as she refrains from pouring the water that will help her soi, Ashalata, wash off from her face the soap and excess sindoor—the red powder, worn on the parting, that is the most explicit traditional marker of marriage for Hindus in India. As the bewildered Ashalata pleads for the water with eyes closed, the audience sees an apparently wicked smile flicker over Binodini’s face, but this, of course, could be more than pleasure that Binodini derives from her friend’s pain. Inhabiting a space where all things desirable are withheld from her, despite her youth and remarkable beauty, this gesture could be read as one of Binodini’s first attempts to draw the pampered wife into that unredeemed zone of denial that was the widow’s reality.
Here Ghosh has Asha occupy the center of the frame, while Binodini is positioned to her side. The scene has us focus on the easy mobility of Asha’s fingers as she quickly soaps and rinses her face while Binodini’s gestures are deliberately presented as slow and meditative, drawing the spectator’s gaze towards her face and its expressions. It is also noteworthy that Asha’s face is often covered in this scene while we are never allowed to lose sight of Binodini’s. Thus even as the framing of the scene situates the privileged wife at the center, it is Binodini, one of the peripheral figures in the scene, who ultimately commands our attention through her expressions and temporary act of denial.
There are, however, other instances in which if not Binodini, then the director himself calls for a crossover into the space of the widow. In this regard, it is important to mention that Rituparno Ghosh is one director who is unhesitating in using key motifs and echoes from Satyajit Ray’s films to help unfold themes in his own. Thus, the picnic scenes in Chokher Bali, in which Binodini swings and Ashalata pushes the swing, cannot fail to remind the viewer of Charu, the female lead and neglected wife of Ray’s film Charulata/The Lonely Wife (1964), based on a short story “Noshtoneer” also by Tagore, whose feet rise progressively farther from the ground as she swings. Soon after, she begins to feel the illicit love for her husband’s cousin, Amal. In a relationship in which there will be no physical consummation, Ray foreshadows for the audience Charu’s emotional and imaginative transgression through the shot of her feet leaving the solid realm of the real.
A quick contextualization of Ray’s Charulata is helpful here. Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) brought international recognition to Bengali cinema. He first received critical acclaim for his Apu Trilogy—Pather Panchali/The Song of the Road, Aparajito/The Unvanquished, and Apur Sansar/The World of Apu—made from the mid to late-1950s. Ray’s later films often focused on the urban middle class with the lure of corruption in city life being a recurrent theme. [See also Note 13]
Charulata is generally regarded as a Ray classic. It illustrates Ray’s superbly sensitive treatment of a wife’s initial isolation and consequent emotional “betrayal” of her husband as she develops a romantic interest for his cousin. Charu’s husband, Bhupati, who belongs to the privileged upper class, is preoccupied with a newspaper he publishes and with political issues during British colonial rule in late-nineteenth century Kolkata. His cousin, Amal, who arrives as a guest at his house shares with Charu a deep interest in literature. Their bond deepens with their discussions about literature and about each other’s writing. The swing sequence captures one such discussion and the beginning of Charu’s romantic interest in Amal. With the publication of her first piece, however, Charu implies to Amal that her writing is of little significance compared to her feelings for him. Amal leaves, terrified of betraying his cousin. Charu is devastated and able to effect no more than a partial compromise with her husband and hence the significance of Tagore’s title for his story “Noshtoneer”/”The Broken (or Defiled) Nest.”
In contrast, Rituparno Ghosh’s film in later scenes involving Binodini and Mahendra clearly takes the viewer into the area of physical passion (interestingly, as indicated earlier, the sub-title of Chokher Bali is A Passion Play). However, the swing scene, as it reverberates with echoes from Charulata, is an early indication that the characters will move beyond the prescriptive boundaries of a socially-sanctioned love or existence.
Yet, if I go back to my earlier point, how, exactly, do the picnic scenes encourage a crossover into the space inhabited by the widow, Binodini? A song written by Tagore (Rabindrasangeet) that Ghosh uses in this scene is one that Binodini and Ashalata sing with ease together in the swing sequence. But is also one that could, nonetheless, point to the sharp difficulties in communication between a wife and a widow. The song, easily recognizable and much loved by a Bengali audience, has the first four lines:
The above lines are broadly translatable as “O, will you forget / those old times; / is it possible to forget / how we saw each other, how we exchanged intimate talk?”
The middle verses of the song, those heard most distinctly in the picnic scenes of the film, are as follows:
Translated, the above lines are
Ghosh’s film dramatizes, on screen, the action embedded in the song in that the friends gather flowers, swing, and sing. But of course, Binodini and Ashalata did not know each other before so that there is no question of a separation, and Ghosh’s insertion of this song in a scene very reminiscent of Charulata seems to move it beyond its simple meaning of longing for union between friends (or lovers) temporarily separated. The earlier film focused on Charu’s desire that remains largely unspoken and unrealized due to the constraints of her household; because of Amal’s hasty departure without letting Charu know; and because of Charu’s own sense of commitment to her husband, Bhupati. Just as Ghosh uses the swing to bring together the transgressive desires of Charu and Binodini, so also he uses the song to evoke possibilities of communication between women (such as Charu and Binodini) who are thwarted and repressed in a normative culture. In addressing intertextuality in Ray and Ghosh’s canons, Mandakranta Bose observes that Chokher Bali takes its place in a “line of cinema set by Satyajit Ray when he made Charulata . . . .” She continues that it is reasonable to assume that in making Chokher Bali,
If contextualized within the specific concerns of Chokher Bali itself, the song calls for fullness of dialogue between the wife and the widow; between Bengali women who occupy two distinctly different spaces within the socio-cultural matrix, one replete with privileges while the other merely indicating deprivation.
And yet, through its third verse, quoted and translated above, the song also adumbrates the rift between Binodini and Ashalata once the former becomes the object of Ashalata’s husband, Mahendra’s erotic desire. Further, instead of just expressing a wish for re-union of friends parted for unspecified reasons, in this film, the song looks ahead to the last scenes in which Ashalata, despite clear knowledge of what can be seen as Binodini’s betrayal, asks if she has left any address behind.
The song ends with the verse:
And the above lines can be translated as,
Within the parameters of Chokher Bali, Ashalata and Binodini never meet again, but if the use of Tagore’s song is Ghosh’s mediated wish for communication between these two women, then it certainly foreshadows Ashalata’s openness to that possibility at the end of the film.
Moreover, because Ghosh persistently makes so evident the inter-textual connections between his films and Ray’s, such lines of the song as “Aye arektibar aye re shokha / praner majhe aye” (“Come one more time, come my friend, / in the midst of my heart”) can be read as the younger director’s invocation or expression of indebtedness to a director who brought to Bengali cinema a tenor of seriousness not seen hitherto and simultaneously helped to internationalize it on a generally significant scale. In this regard, the word “shokha” is particularly relevant as in Bengali, it means “male friend,” although within the context of Ghosh’s film, the word signifies in a non-gendered way. What I read, on one level, as Ghosh’s invoking of Ray assumes added importance as he continues to direct film after film centered on women’s issues, an endeavor seen in several Ray films such as Mahanagar/The Big City (1963), Nayak/The Hero (1966), Aranyer Din Ratri/Days and Nights in the Forest (1969), and Pratidwandi/The Adversary (1970).
Within the picnic scenes of Chokher Bali itself, the dialogue solidifies for the audience Ghosh’s concerns about charting, through cinema, the progressive increase in women’s rights in early-twentieth century Bengal. Things that the characters talk about include Binodini’s vocalized interest in attending meetings of nationalist protest; her mention of the radical Bengali activist Ram Mohan Roy finally stopping satidaha; and Mahendra’s, albeit sarcastic, reference to both the cessation of satidaha and introduction of widow remarriage.  The above moments in the dialogue also substantiate my reading that the use of Tagore’s song in this sequence connotes more than just a parting and re-union between any two people and is one of Ghosh’s endeavors to have us re-think the traditional space of the widow in Bengali (Indian) culture.