The housewife’s sporadic visual pleasure: Charu, in Charulata, looks at ...

... Kolkata streets through the binoculars.

Ray’s representation of a housewife’s loneliness and boredom in late-nineteenth century Kolkata in Charulata.

Charu looks at Amal.

Imaginative “transgression” and the beginnings of a romantic interest.

Ghosh’s unreserved exploration of Binodini’s sexual needs and his re-charging of the binoculars as sign: Binodini, in Chokher Bali, gazes at ...

... Asha and Mahendra’s room through the binoculars.

The haunting of eros by the “specters” of death: Binodini mocks Mahendra ...

... in the first scene of passion.

Binodini marks Mahendra with ...

... the sign of their passion ...

... and yet is only too aware of the long shadow cast by death ...

... and how desire loses out to it.

Ghosh ruptures “tradition” and works against potential objectification of the Indian widow. Binodini “uses” Kalighat and her widowhood for passion.

Binodini brings the specter of ...

... the dead husband into an intimate context.

Binodini, the corpse, and the lived reality of the widow: Binodini hears of the widow’s death.

Behari confirms the widow’s death.

Binodini and Behari stare at each other ...

... across the widow’s dead body.

Behari sits close to the corpse, which is kept out of frame, as he gazes at Binodini.

The many barriers in romance for a Hindu widow and the invisibility yet closeness of death: The proposal scene is lit up by funeral pyres.

The red shawl as shroud.

Imperiled geo-political spaces and spaces of female friendship and solidarity: Asha reads Binodini’s last letter and inquires about her address.


Desire and the specters of orthodoxy

Although resonant with echoes from Charulata, a specific way in which Chokher Bali diverges from the former film is in its unreserved exploration of sexuality. Like Ray, Ghosh uses binoculars (field glasses) as a connotative device. With Ray, in an early scene of Charulata, Charu uses binoculars in her alienation and frustration to gaze on the streets of Kolkata,[16] but their particular significance is that they provide sporadic visual pleasure to the housewife.[17] [open endnotes in new window] In contrast, by having Binodini at her window use binoculars to search frantically for signs of sexual intimacy in Ashalata and Mahendra’s room, Ghosh recharges this sign not only to underscore the severe limitations in the widow’s existence, but to also make clear that Bengali film has moved to a point where a serious and unreserved addressing of her (repressed) sexuality is in order.[18]

In several sequences of Chokher Bali, two elements that Ghosh reiteratively yokes together are the force of desire and the spectral presence of the dead husband. Even in the first scene of passion between Binodini and Mahendra, Binodini makes pointed, and what appears perverse, reference to her dead spouse. “My husband died of tuberculosis,”[19] she tells Mahendra, who draws back immediately from caressing and kissing her. However, she is testing more than his courage about contagion as she laughs in his face. Throughout Chokher Bali, Ghosh clearly presents Binodini as supremely skeptical of Mahendra’s ability to break with tradition and do what is daring or unconventional. Further, by repeatedly bringing the dead into the realm of the erotic, Binodini mocks and yet underlines the stubborn persistence of specters that define the widow’s existence. The dead husband is on spectre, of course, also the innumerable restrictive stipulations of orthodox Hinduism that will not be put to rest and which vitiate or obstruct the erotic in the life of a widow. This haunting of eros by thanatos seems endless to Binodini.

In a carriage scene in which Ghosh explicitly depicts passion between the two characters, Binodini again drags her dead husband into her conversation with Mahendra. As she deliberately smears his shirt with the sindoor from Kalighat[20] that he has accidentally gotten on her forehead during an embrace, he chides her affectionately because it will be difficult to erase the red powder. In response, Binodini says undeterred,

“Is it possible that you will meet with me” [the Bengali word songo—“meet” is not an exact equivalent for this—is alternately translatable as “keep company with me”] but leave no sign? Don’t you see, so long ago, I kept company with [or “was united with”] [my husband] who is dead and a ghost, and yet, for all these years, I bear with me that sign” [or “mark”]?

But of course, within the context of early-twentieth century Bengali masculinist culture, the two predicaments are not comparable. In general the agents[21] or even more passive elements,of such a culture would facilitate Mahendra’s erasing of the “sign” of his illicit involvement with Binodini but would unrelentingly uphold the necessity of her austere existence, which signified Binodini’s widowhood until her death. Even as she determinedly “marks” Mahendra with the “sign” of their passion, Binodini is aware that this passion cannot compete with the force of the “sign” that makes her captive to her spectral husband. In the cultural context of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Bengal, her widowhood has always already won over any eros that might enter her present or future life.

In one of the later scenes of Chokher Bali, when Mahendra leaves home to come to Binodini who has moved to her native village, en route to Kashi, she says to him as he is about to sit on the bed,

“That is my marriage bed. It is on that bed that he [my husband] died.”

Once again, she deliberately introduces the dead husband into a context charged with intimacy. However, what is more interesting is that through this act, she seems to forestall the possibility of passion between herself and Mahendra, almost instinctively guarding against any future disillusionment when Hindu society itself would stand against it.

The corpse of the widow and
film as “historically situated” dialogue

Other than through the character Binodini, as director Ghosh uses different strategies to juxtapose romance/passion in the widow’s life with death. Once they are in Kashi, for instance, talk about a child between Binodini and Mahendra (even though the two are talking at cross purposes: she about his child that Ashalata carries and he about a child with her) is followed by a sequence in which Binodini is visibly agitated by the death of a widow on the banks of the Ganges. Furthermore, the doctor who confirms this death is Behari, who Binodini believes has a romantic interest in her.[22] As the two stare at each other, across the widow’s dead body, Behari inquires where Mahendra is. Binodini asks with a smile of anticipation, “Haven’t you come to me?” Behari informs her that Mahendra’s mother (another widow in the film) has passed away in Kolkata and reiterates his query about Mahendra.

Ghosh’s cinematic construction of this sequence is telling. The shot-reverse shots bring us both Behari and Binodini but accentuate for the spectator the sheer pleasure on Binod’s face as she seems to block out the signifiers of death all around her on this burning ghat (a bank of the Ganges where bodies are cremated). In quick contrast, the shots of Behari’s face convey beautifully the duality of his experience of bringing bad news and the unexpected pleasure of seeing Binodini. What is also noteworthy about this sequence is that although Behari sits very close to the corpse as he stares at Binodini, the body of the dead widow is always kept out of frame during the exchange of glances. This invisibility yet proximity of death in a late sequence of Chokher Bali underscores once again for the audience that the possibility of romance in a widow’s life is framed by obstacles that are not always explicit.

When Behari finally proposes marriage to Binodini, the background of the scene is intermittently lit up by funeral pyres, one of which happens to be that of the widow whose death Binodini has recently witnessed. This is evident to the viewer because the red shawl that had covered the body of the dying widow is now worn by another widow who limps around the funeral pyre, possibly in hopes of getting exactly such discarded items before the body is set on fire. The Indian viewer understands that the red shawl is used, in both cases, only for purposes of providing warmth; it is not appropriate attire for the Hindu widow. It is supremely ironic that Binodini had previously, in Kashi, asked Mahendra if he would buy her a red shawl that she liked. Mahendra expressed his disapproval, red being associated with brides in the Hindu context and white with widows. Ghosh signifies the utter futility of such desire as Binodini’s by using a red shawl to cover the body of an unconscious widow about to exit life or by transferring it to the body of another aged widow whose existence seems to revolve around seeking disposable goods around funeral pyres. No more an object of desire, the red shawl finally figures as shroud for bodies marked by deprivation.[23]

As Chokher Bali draws to its close then, it is no longer the specter of the long-dead husband that Binodini drags into moments marked by passion or the possibility of passion. In these last sequences of the film, Rituparno Ghosh focuses squarely on the corpse of the widow itself, the raw reality of the female body that has lived and died in deprivation, something Binodini must look at up close, as ominous as that may be to her. For it is not so much her understanding of the cause (i.e. the dead masculine that lives to haunt), but her confrontation of the female body that bears the effects (i.e. herself and others similar to herself) that moves her towards validating passion all throughout the film and at its end. Such an understanding enables her to reject the confines of the domestic realm in which she had largely been situated.

Thus, even as he portrays her as fully cognizant of the odds stacked against her, in transferring Binodini’s story to screen in the early-twenty first century, when feminist struggles have left and leave their mark in most world cultures, Ghosh presents this protagonist as willing and able to manipulate the “immobility” of the “mark” that is her widowhood. Looking at how such social commentary works in fiction film, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam draw on a Bakhtinian concept of art and discuss the ways film is “social” precisely because it is a “historically situated ‘utterance’” communicated by one subject(s) to others in a particular historical moment. They argue that with film, what is more important than its representation of a “preexisting truth or reality” is that it is “an act of contextualized interlocution between socially situated producers and listeners” (Shohat and Stam 1994, 180). In much of his work, Ghosh tellingly locates his characters within the context of “a historically situated ‘utterance’” rather than demonstrate “fidelity to a preexisting truth or reality.”[24]

For instance, in the same carriage scene that I discussed earlier, long before their arrival in Kashi, Binodini tells Mahendra that she left home for Kalighat saying,

“[Today] is my husband’s death day.[25] For the first time, I have been able to take advantage of my widowhood.”

Ghosh is clearly not interested in upholding (the value of) patriarchal constructs that prove to be generally constrictive or detrimental to women.[26] That Ghosh makes Binodini “use” her widowhood to gain erotic pleasure illustrates Benjamin’s concept of “a shattering of tradition.” In a similar kind of critique, Shohat and Stam note that in Third Worldist film simply

“the exaltation of ‘the national’ provides no criteria for distinguishing what is worth retaining in the ‘national tradition.’ A sentimental defense of patriarchal social institutions simply because they are ‘ours’ can hardly be seen as emancipatory” (1994, 286).[27]

However, it is more than an aspect of Bengali and Hindu cultural tradition that Ghosh challenges by giving Binodini this kind of subversive agency in his film. It is quite likely that he also attempts to reverse broad global perceptions about the Indian widow, as I mentioned earlier. Not only does Indian culture have traditional perspectives on widowhood, but an international perspective often objectifies third world women as well. In addition, as a filmmaker, Ghosh also has to deal with the objectification that characterizes the international culture of mediated visuality. Rey Chow in Primitive Passions has taken up this problem at length, understanding that non-Western film directors must somehow work through cinema’s reduction to “objecthood” as they use visuality to construct subjectivities. Chow writes:

“What is needed, after the ethical polemic of Saïd’s Orientalism is understood, is the much more difficult task of investigating how visuality operates in the postcolonial politics of non-Western cultures besides the subjection to passive spectacle that critics of orientalism argue . . . . What does it mean for non-Western intellectuals to live as “subjects” and “agents” in the age of ‘the world as exhibition?’” (1995, 13)[28]

Looking back to Edward Saïd, Chow understands that the East is not just a spectacle but also involved in the “dialectic of seeing” (1995, 13). Here we are, of course, reminded of passages in Orientalism. In one such passage, as he discusses Arab literature, Saïd speaks of how a literary text might combat orientalist objectification:

“Its force is not that it is Arab, or French, or English; its force is in the power and vitality of words that, to mix in Flaubert’s metaphor from La Tentation de Saint Antoine, tip the idols out of the Orientalists’ arms and make them drop those great paralytic children—which are their ideas of the Orient—that attempt to pass for the Orient. ” (1979, 291) [29]

Although Saïd, here, speaks of a literary text (rather than a film), again his argument is that the East has its own agency, its own “dialectic of seeing.”

In Primitive Passions, Chow extends such a notion of subjectivity and dynamism further in order to consider visual culture. She writes:

“How are the ‘subjective origins’ of the previously ethnographized communicated in visual terms? They are, I think, communicated not so much through the act of looking as through what may be called “to-be-looked-at-ness”—the visuality that once defined the “object” status of the ethnographized culture and that now becomes a predominant aspect of that culture’s self-representation. (1995, 180)[30]

What Chow means here is that non-Western film directors must somehow work with this the reduction to “objecthood” as they use visuality to construct subjectivities. Thus, “to-be-looked-at-ness” would be a condition used deliberately and strategically by cinema directors to underscore past objectification of non-Western cultural subjects. The specter of such objectification is always present in Chokher Bali, particularly with its parallel narrative of other widows’ lives and the possibility of what Binodini would become in the absence of her dynamism. Yet Ghosh also unhesitatingly provides a new or alternative representation of the Bengali widow, one that foregrounds her desire for pleasure rather than her submissiveness to social forces that work to efface that pleasure. Further, he brings us Binodini’s “exploitation” of the static aspects of Hindu widowhood. As acting (and assertive) subject within a “technologized visuality” (Chow 1995, 6), Binodini opens up for question any single or dominant world perception of a Bengali widow. Furthermore, as a “non-Western [intellectual]” directing films in “the age of ‘the world as exhibition’” (Chow 1995, 13), Ghosh, in my view, provides us with an exciting version of Bengali “culture’s self-representation” (Chow 1995, 180). In his film, Binodini refuses to be an “immobile” object, positioned and restrained by Hindu orthodoxy, or the kind of widow who according to the Western ethnographic gaze needs some form of redemption. Instead, she is ready to reverse and re-write her own given predicament as well as to some extent that of others in a similar situation.

Effects of British colonialism
and women’s solidarity

It is not surprising that Binodini’s last letter to Ashalata, delivered to the latter by Behari, after her disappearance from Kashi,[31] urges Ashalata to conceptualize a world beyond the interiors of the second floor of  Darjipara Street—those domestic spaces encompassing kitchen, half-eaten food, courtyard, and shutters in which the two had pledged friendship to each other. And because Mahendra was the one man both had known, they both tried to fulfill their desire through him. But of course, this ruptured their world, leaving their little “country,” as Binodini calls it,[32] in pieces. Binodini reminds Ashalata to look further than that, that once she stood on the banks of the Ganges in Kashi, she understood that there was a world beyond the interiority of Darjipara Street.

In this last section of Chokher Bali, Ghosh foregrounds once again Binodini’s awareness of India’s (and, in particular, Bengal’s) political predicament. For in the letter to Ashalata, Binod warns Asha of the British Viceroy Lord Curzon’s plan for the Partition of Bengal. (This would separate the eastern part of Bengal, from the province itself, and add it to Assam).[33] If put into effect, Binod and Asha would live in different “countries,” because, it is to be assumed, the former would no longer  be in the vicinity of Kolkata, located in the western section of Bengal.[34] To recapitulate, the relegation of the Hindu widow to prescribed social spaces, devoid of the possibility of passion, not only intensified Binodini’s desire but also caused the rift with her soi, Ashalata. However, Ghosh shows how the position of the female subject in early-twentieth century Bengal was not just determined by a national patriarchal vision but weakened further by the effects of British colonialism. For the rupture in the bond between her and Ashalata seems deeper and more ominous to Binodini because now,there also looms the possibility of a permanent geographical hiatus between them. The fragmentation of their “country,” their female space as each other’s soi, is mirrored externally in the potential fragmentation of Bengal by a foreign power.

Yet, just as Ashalata, by asking if Binodini has left any address behind, remains open to the possibility of communication with her, so Binodini in this last letter to her soi suggests to Ashalata that they should move beyond their sense of insults, sadness, and deprivation that they both had felt, confined within the (prescribed) women’s spaces of Darjipara Street. For, if situated in their potentially separate[d] “countries,” they focused on these, then they already lost to Lord Curzon. If, however, they looked at the “country within” and stood by their pledge of eternal friendship to each other, it would be impossible for Lord Curzon to teach them a lesson.

At the close of Chokher Bali then, Ghosh looks to the solidarity of women not only as a force against the stipulations and injustices of Hindu patriarchy but as a shield against the divisive strategies of British colonialism in India. In the face of such fragmentation, the references in Binodini’s letter to Abhimanyu and the Ganges, the first a young undaunted warrior of the Indian epic The Mahabharata[35] and the second the sacred river of India, solidify for the viewers the Bengali women’s faith in national symbols that provide strength.[36] Binodini writes to Ashalata that The Mahabharata says that Abhimanyu grew to be a considerable warrior in his mother’s womb, and the child Ashalata carries bathed everyday in the Ganges with her (during Ashalata’s stay in Kashi). The implication is clear that blest by the sacred waters of the Ganges, Ashalata’s child could grow to be a warrior, a fighter undeterred. Ghosh moves fluidly between concepts of threatened geo-political spaces and empowering women’s spaces at the end of Chokher Bali as Binod concludes her letter, pleading with Asha not to keep her child confined to the interiority of Darjipara Street, whether it is a boy or a girl. The last line of her letter translates,

“You will see, s(he)[37] will teach you what ‘country’ is.”

Perhaps the text of Binodini’s letter conflates nationalist imperatives with issues of urgent importance for women. It is difficult to not hear in it a sub-text: Bengali anguish over partitioning of land; warnings against native (individual) schisms; calls for unity and a militant spirit; also a marked patriotism, particularly in the repeated use of the word desh/country. However, despite its mammoth and devastating economic and political effects, in this letter, colonialism is used as a springboard to move to issues that affect Bengali women’s everyday lives in a more immediate sense. In prioritizing the female quotidian realm over the colonial predicament, Ghosh effects yet another reversal in Chokher Bali. Even though the national political conversation, especially as filtered through the character of Behari, remains a persistent strain in the film, it is situated as peripheral to Binodini and Ashalata’s lives.[38] As Ghosh adeptly shifts from the discourse around colonialism to the specific context of women’s lives, his achievement reminds me of Adrienne Rich’s admonishing observation at the end of her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision (1971)”:

“‘Political’ poetry by men remains stranded amid the struggles for power among male groups; in condemning U.S. imperialism or the Chilean junta the poet can claim to speak for the oppressed while remaining, as male, part of a system of sexual oppression. The enemy is always outside the self, the struggle somewhere else. (1979, 49)”[39]

As a committed feminist, Ghosh understands how historically such “political” conversations have taken precedence over discussion of the difficulties of women’s daily lives. (This is not to minimize the importance of such “political” conversations or see the two issues as necessarily mutually exclusive). In this film, in a final reversal at the end, we see that Curzon’s territorialism is subordinated to Binodini’s vision of desh/country as suggested to Ashalata. 

Such a vision is also more inclusive than one which, to put it simplistically, would address the Indian nationalist effort but ignore or subsume the particular difficulties or impediments of certain groups within the sub-continent.[40] As mentioned earlier, Binodini is interested in the freedom struggle and very cognizant of how Bengal is threatened by Curzon’s plans. However, at the end of her letter to Ashalata, she focuses on Bengali women’s freedom from confining domestic spaces and the concept of a nation/desh that is both an independent India and a more liberating terrain for women. Her message to Ashalata that the latter’s child could grow to be a warrior together with her closing thought—“You will see, s(he) will teach you what ‘country’ is”—illustrate simultaneous notions of a freedom fighter and a subject who will bring to her (his) mother a sense of a fuller world for women. It is no accident that Ghosh has Binodini attempt to frame nationalist concerns and women’s issues within a maternal perspective, a perspective that she herself, in all likelihood, will never be able to concretize. The director’s use of the lens of motherhood at the end of Chokher Bali brings us back squarely to the spaces of the female quotidian, for Ghosh a vital area to explore in cinema.

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