1. A version of this essay, with the same title, was originally presented as a paper at the National Women’s Studies Association Convention in Cincinnati in June, 2008. [return to page 1 of essay]

2. See Benjamin(2008).

3. A more elaborate discussion of this notion may be found in John Berger. In Ways of Seeing, Berger speaks of cameras and television screens “reproducing” paintings. These reproductions then enter viewers’ homes and are framed by their contexts. See Berger (1972, 19-20).

4. Chokher Bali was published serially in the Bengali magazine Bangadarshan.

5. See Sangita Gopal, Conjugations: Marriage and Form in New Bollywood Cinema, Chapter 5 for another reading of Ghosh’s representation. Among other things, Gopal argues that Ghosh moves away from the

“tradition of the ‘literary’ film that attempted to reproduce the novel’s interiorized ‘vision’ of the subject. The new Bengali cinema, of which Chokher Bali is exemplary, has no qualms about representing the subject as sheer exteriority” (176). See Gopal (2011).

6. I am also indebted here to Rey Chow’s line of thought in a section of Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Chow draws on Benjamin’s essay “The Task of the Translator” to posit how just as translation releases an “‘intention’ of standing-for-something-else” that is “imprisoned . . . in the original” (187), so some contemporary Chinese cinema, such as films by Zhang Yimou, by focusing on so-called “primitive” subjects, exhibits/explores the cruelty of certain aspects of Chinese tradition (47, 202). In this reading, Chow, of course, sees cinema itself as a form of translation, an idea that applies to Ghosh’s making of Chokher Bali in a similar but also different way. See Chow (1995).

7. The word soi, a Bengali one, literally translatable as “friend” needs a bit of explanation. Soi patano refers to the practice, among Bengali girls or women, of very deliberately forming a friendship, with the friends often bestowing special names of affection, such as Chokher Bali, on each other. There is a clear and mutual sense of commitment in these friendships, an understanding that the friends will stand by each other, no matter what the circumstances. In Tagore’s novel and in Ghosh’s film, Binodini and Ashalata become each other’s soi soon after the former’s arrival into the household that is Ashalata’s home after marriage.

8. In The Nation and Its Fragments, Partha Chatterjee gives us the impressions of a mid-nineteenth century Bengali married woman, Kailasbasini Debi, who notes in her diary that “widows are traditionally restricted to a hard life devoid of luxury in order to make them unattractive to men, so they do not become objects of their lust” (146). Chatterjee does clarify for us that Kailasbasini’s views, as in this case, were often “rationalist” ones used to justify “traditional beliefs and customs” (146). See Chatterjee (1993). The deprivation in the life of a widow in a Bengali household is also addressed in the opening paragraphs of Tagore’s renowned short story “The Living and the Dead.” See Tagore (2000). A recent film with striking scenes that highlight the contrasts in the life of a widow and other married women (and unmarried young girls), in the twentieth century Indian colonial context, is, of course, Deepa Mehta’s Water. Perhaps the most poignant of such scenes are ones that underscore these contrasts in the lives of very young girls, even children. 

9. In the opening sequence of Utsab/Festival (2000), for instance, we are told through a voiceover that the utensils that will be used for Durga Puja, in the house whose courtyard the camera roams over, were used by Ray in his film Devi/The Goddess (1960). We are also told that Ray visited this particular house. Whether these are facts or fiction remains unclear. Whereas Devi and Ray are merely mentioned in Utsab, Devi itself has obvious connections with another, more recent, Ghosh film—Antarmahal/Views of the Inner Chamber (2005).

In Antarmahal, the rustic sculptor, Brij Bhushan, reputed for his clay images and replicas, and chosen to sculpt the image of Durga in the zamindar’s (landed gentry) house, falls in love with the zamindar’s beautiful second wife. On the designated day of worship, when the image is unveiled, the face of the goddess is seen to be a replica of that of the zamindar’s wife. The displacement of romantic or erotic attraction onto the divine in this Ghosh film is clearly reminiscent of themes in Ray’s Devi. In the latter film, Doyamoyee, the younger daughter-in-law of Kalikinkar’s household, is accorded the status of Ma/Devi/Goddess after she is seen as a reincarnation of the Goddess Kali in a dream by Kalikinkar. As per the instructions of her father-in-law, she is regularly worshipped in the household, a practice that eventually destroys the romantic and erotic relationship between her and her husband, Umaprasad.

10. I am grateful to my long-time friend Asit Roy for alerting me to this during one of our conversations in Kolkata in the early eighties.

11. In order to convey the best possible meaning I am able to, I am not necessarily translating these or the following lines of the song in sequence.

12. See Bose (2007). However, in a short reflective piece on Chokher Bali published in Kolkata shortly after its release, Amit Chaudhuri notes that these borrowings from Ray—the swing sequence and the binoculars (to be discussed shortly following in my article)—do not fit into the texture of the film. He observes,

“. . . these moments, like cockatoos or imported eunuchs, are neither at home and nor do they have anywhere else to go.” See Chaudhuri (2003).

13. In Aranyer Din Ratri, one of the female characters, Jaya, is a modern day widow, who, nonetheless, still chooses to dress mostly in white sarees (white being the color traditionally worn by widows in India. Actually, since Ray’s film is in black and white, it is difficult to say whether these are, in fact, white sarees or simply light-colored ones). As an unspoken love interest begins to develop between her and one of the male characters, Sanjoy, in the film, Ray gives us a sequence in which she dons a dark-colored saree and elaborate jewelry and inquires of him how she looks and whether he is afraid. In general, widows wore no jewelry to underscore the austerity of their existence. Her over-adorning of herself suggests the extent of desires she has repressed to conform to tradition. Her breaking down in tears at the end of the sequence and escaping alone to her room implies the temporary nature of this “transgression.” In Chokher Bali, Ghosh also weaves in a sequence in which Binodini, at the insistence of Ashalata, puts on elaborate jewelry, another instance of an echo from Ray’s canon.

In Mahanagar, Ray details the experiences of a Bengali housewife, Arati, from a conservative family, who decides to find a job because of the household’s financial difficulties. Arati has the force of character to give up her job, at the end of the film, when a colleague is unfairly dismissed. She does this in spite of the fact that her husband has no job at this point. Ray’s Nayak, although majorly focused on the character of film actor Arindam Mukherjee, has as its female lead Aditi Sengupta, an editor of a women’s journal, who is traveling from Kolkata to New Delhi to attempt to get a grant for this journal. Similarly, although Pratidwandi is centered on the character of Siddhartha Chaudhuri, a sub-plot addresses the allegations against his sister, Sutapa, an attractive woman who has found a lucrative job which helps out her family financially after the father’s death.

14. Satidaha was the practice in which a Hindu widow burnt to death on the funeral pyre of her husband in order to prove she was sati (the perfect, chaste wife). Some widows chose to do this voluntarily, while others were forced to become sati. Whether suicide or collective killing of women, sati showed the entrenched patriarchal power structure and ideology. In Bengal, the nineteenth century social reformer Ram Mohan Roy worked vigorously to abolish sati. For a comprehensive discussion of debates surrounding a recent occurrence of sati in India as also artistic representations of and postcolonial feminist positions on sati, see Rajan (1993, 15-63).

15. It is perhaps relevant to note here that Tagore’s depiction of the picnic scene in his novel includes no mention of such issues, although it is obvious that the novel itself captures Tagore’s concerns about the position of the widow in Bengali culture. It is also necessary to mention that sati was outlawed in Bengal in 1829 by the British Governor-General William Bentinck, and the Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856. In the picnic scenes of his film, Ghosh captures early-twentieth century responses to these issues, with a clear focus on Binodini’s understanding of these much needed changes.

16. It is true that Charu later looks at Amal through the binoculars, but Ray focuses more on an incipient romantic interest rather than a markedly erotic one.

17. For a different comparative analysis of the significance of the binoculars in Charulata and Chokher Bali, see Gopal (2011, 169-72). Further, in a recent article on Chokher Bali, Kaustav Bakshi argues that in contrast to “classical” cinema which privileges the male gaze and renders women as spectacles, Chokher Bali by representing Binodini with the binoculars foregrounds the desiring female gaze and female agency. See Bakshi (2011).

18. Towards the end of Chokher Bali, Binodini again uses binoculars in Kashi (Benaras) only to see a very pregnant Ashalata, traumatizing evidence to her of Asha’s relationship with Mahendra. Asha moves temporarily to Kashi with an aunt after she finds out about Mahendra and Binodini’s betrayal.

19. All translations of dialogue from the film are mine.

20. Kalighat is a holy site in Kolkata where one of the toes of Kali (Kali is a manifestation of Durga/Sati)is reputed to have fallen during her husband, Shiva’s, enraged dance with her body, following their insult and Sati’s death at her father, Daksha’s religious ceremony, Daksha Yajna. (Shiva was not invited to the ceremony, and Sati was insulted when she attended).

After one offers prayers at Kalighat, one is given a little basket of proshad (flowers and sweets first offered to and believed to be blessed by the goddess). This basket also contains some sindoor, which has been applied to the goddess by the priest during worship on that day.

21. I am not thinking here of social reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy, who worked to abolish satidaha, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, whose endeavors led to the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, and others who strove to improve the conditions of widows overall. In Real and Imagined Women, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan also makes the following very interesting observations on nineteenth century India:

“Among the indigenous reformers, a sentimental affiliation to indigenous “tradition,” the early stirrings of nationalism, and an acute recognition of the resistance of social forces to change, created a complex inheritance which considerably complicated the ideological stance towards issues relating to women. Thus while sati could be condemned on both humanitarian and religious grounds, the prescribed alternative for widows, ascetic celibacy, was not so easily opposed. Therefore the remarriage of widows, long after it was made legally permissible, was a practically non-existent practice. “(48)

Further, Rajan draws on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow-Sacrifice” to note that

“for Spivak, what is of ‘greater significance’ than the debate on sati is that ‘there was no debate upon this exceptional fate of widows [i.e. celibacy] – either among Hindus or between Hindus and British’” (55). See Rajan (1993).

22. It should be mentioned here that Behari is educated, a radical thinker, and also actively involved in meetings of nationalist protest against the British.

23. In my 2009 interview with him, Ghosh mentioned that in one (released) version of Chokher Bali, Binodini is shown as having bought and wearing the red shawl that she wanted. According to Ghosh, when Tagore wrote the novel in the early-twentieth century, red was very likely a color associated with passion. However, one hundred years later, when Ghosh’s film was released, red had also become a “symbol of rebellion” (Ghosh) as evident, if I may add, in different world political contexts. In this version mentioned by Ghosh, Binodini’s giving of the red shawl to the dying widow thus associates her with red in a different way and suggests, according to Ghosh, her renunciation of passion, her statement that passion is not everything for her any longer. She wants to live in her own way, free of such ties.

24. Another point on cinematic representation made by Shohat and Stam in Unthinking Eurocentrism deserves mention here. They note:

“The analysis of a film like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), sociologically flawed from a mimetic perspective—given its focus on wealthy Asians rather than more typically working-class Asians in London—alters considerably when regarded as a constellation of discursive strategies, as a provocative symbolic inversion of conventional expectations of a miserabilist account of Asian victimization.” (181)

See Shohat and Stam (1994). In presenting Binodini as agentive, and, at times, aggressively so, Ghosh is, no doubt, thinking of a global audience interested in women’s voices and rights and simultaneously reversing “conventional expectations,” both in the national and world contexts, of a downtrodden or ultimately defeated Hindu widow.

25. It would be normal for a widow to visit Kalighat and offer prayers on such an occasion. In reality, Binodini leaves the house to indulge in a passionate encounter with Mahendra.

26. A point made by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, in the Introduction to Real and Imagined Women, is worth mentioning here.

“. . . but since [culture] is also heterogeneous, changing and open to interpretation, it can become a site of contestation and consequently of the reinscription of subjectivities. Therefore cultural analysis both calls forth the critique of ideology, and – given the crucial function of representation in the dialectic of social process – enables political intervention, scenarios of change, theoretical innovation and strategic reinterpretations.” (10)

See Rajan (1993). Ghosh seems to be involved in several of these projects, mentioned by Rajan, in his cinematic representations.

27. See Shohat and Stam (1994).

28. See Chow (1995).

29. See Saïd (1979).

30. See Chow (1995).

31. Binodini disappears on the day Behari comes to her house, ready to marry her, with all the necessary items for a Hindu wedding ceremony. She is gone when he arrives. In a separate letter to Behari, she says that she ran away so that there was no dearth in the wedding feast. In one of her last communications, then, Binodini presents herself as one eager to eat, another sharp reversal of the traditional image of the Hindu widow who withholds physical desires.

32. The Bengali word used by Binod here is desh, a word that often has patriotic undertones.

33. The Partition of Bengal was put into effect on October 16th, 1905. After considerable public protest, the Partition was revoked in 1911.

34. However, if Binodini is going to live in some part of a divided Bengal, it also implies that she has left Kashi, located outside of the province of Bengal, in northern India.

35. In the Mahabharata, Abhimanyu was the son of Arjuna by Subhadra and was tricked into single combat with the Kauravas inside of a chakravyuha (labyrinth) which he knew how to enter but not exit. Abhimanyu was killed in this encounter, in the Kurukshetra War, after fighting valiantly, and his death was avenged by his father, Arjuna.

36. For a much cited discussion of how the Indian nationalist movement saw women/the domestic realm as preserving the essence of the country’s tradition and culture, see Chatterjee (1993, Chapter 6). I do not find Chatterjee’s reading totally unproblematic.

37. The third person singular pronoun, shey, is not gendered in Bengali.

38. For a different response to Ghosh’s treatment of the nation in Chokher Bali, see Bose (2007, 200-01). Bose comments on the ineffectiveness of the “woman-nation” metaphor in the film because

“the nation is hardly visible and . . . because the politics never progresses beyond personal power struggles in the family” (200).

39. See Rich (1979).

40. In the film, Ghosh does show Behari to be both involved in the nationalist issues and sensitive to the predicament of women.


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Pratidwandi/The Adversary. 1970. Directed by Satyajit Ray. Kolkata: Nepal Dutta and Asim Dutta.

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Tagore, Rabindranath. (1892) 2000. “The Living and the Dead.” In Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories, trans. and introd. William Radice, 31-41. New Delhi: Penguin.

- - -. (1901-02) 2003. Chokher Bali. In his Upponyas-Sommogro/A collection of novels, 199-362. Vol. I. Kolkata: Sahityam.

Utsab/Festival. 2000. Directed by Rituparno Ghosh. Kolkata: Cinemawalla.

Water. 2005. Directed by Deepa Mehta. Toronto: David Hamilton.


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