2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
Chokher Bali: a historico-cultural
translation of Tagore
by Srimati Mukherjee
Srimati Mukherjee’s article, “Chokher Bali: a historico-cultural translation of Tagore,” was published in Jump Cut in 2012. In January 2015 the editors discovered that a large section of the article, about 455 words, had been directly copied and presented as original work in another publication. We have concluded that this is self-evident plagiarism.
The plagiarized passage appears in “Adaptation and Ideology: A Study of Rituparno Ghosh’s Films,” by Sananda Roy and was published in The Indian Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies, Vol. 2, no. 1, February 2014, pp. 18-
From the bottom of Page 22, all through Page 23, and into Page 24, Sananda Roy copies from the original JUMP CUT publication with virtually no modification. Although Roy cites the original under "Webliography," there is no acknowledgement in the text itself or marker that it is a long direct quote from the section of the JUMP CUT original titled "Rupturing 'Tradition' to Reactivate the Subject," specifically from paragraphs 4 through 8. In addition, Roy does not include the URL to the original article, although she does include URLs for all her other references, thus making it less likely for a reader to notice the fraud. Therefore we conclude the plagiarism was deliberate, not simply an error or missing footnote, etc.
Subsequently we contacted the Indian journal and pointed out the plagiarism. They in turn contacted the Roy who responded with a statement we regard as essentially unsatisfactory as an explanation. At this point (early February 2015) we note the plagiarism here. The Indian Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies will deal with the fraud according to their policies.
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 reactivating the subject
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.
Foreshadowing transgression with echoes from Ray
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:
Purano shei diner kotha
Bhulbi kire haye
o shei chokher dekha, praner kotha
Sheo ki bhola jaye.
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:
Mora bhorer belaye
Phool tulechi dulechi dolaye
Bajiye bashi gan geyechi
Haye majhe holo chhara chhari
Gelem ke kothaye
Abar dekha jodi holo shokha
Praner majhe aye.
Translated, the above lines are
“We have picked flowers at dawn, / swung on the swing, / played the flute and sung / under the bokul tree.”
“Somewhere in between, there was separation; / and no knowing where we went. / If we have met again, my friend, / come in the midst of the heart.”
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,
“Ghosh has deliberately tried to follow Ray . . . by choosing a story about a woman’s gradual recognition of autonomy denied” (Bose 2007, 196).
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:
Aye arektibar aye re shokha
Praner majhe aye
Mora shukher dukher kotha kobo
Pran jurabe taye.
And the above lines can be translated as,
“Come one more time, come my friend, / in the midst of my heart; / we will talk of happiness, we will talk of pain, / and the heart will be filled.”
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.
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, but their particular significance is that they provide sporadic visual pleasure to the housewife. 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.
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,” 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 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 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. 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.
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.”
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. 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. 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).
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)
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) 
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)
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, 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, 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). 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. 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 and the second the sacred river of India, solidify for the viewers the Bengali women’s faith in national symbols that provide strength. 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) 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. 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)”
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. 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.
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.
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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