A Woman's Place in Ritu's World
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
Walking on eggshells, skirting around, and toying with unspoken emotions – Rituparno Ghosh delves deep into a realm of forbidden feelings and cruelly snaps back to reality. Sexuality is expressed and subsequently repressed, somewhat mirroring the director’s own struggles with his identity. Ghosh’s Dosar (Companion) is about a woman (Konkona Sen Sharma) who must take care of her ailing husband after an accident, despite being aware of the fact that he had been cheating on her. Initially, she refuses responsibility, even contemplating divorce. From a feminist point of view, this would have been the right thing to do. However, things aren’t so black and white (pun intended) in real life. As humans, we often find ourselves feeling vulnerable, succumbing to what’s easier to do, instead of what’s morally correct or healthier in the long run. We seek solace in the most unlikely places, finding ourselves circling around the same old people, holding onto old memories, trying to recreate the warmth that we once derived from them. Urmila (Aparna Sen), in Titli finds herself in a similar dilemma, when she feels an inexplicable fondness for her old lover, and even breaks down when she hears the news of his marriage. In all their years of estrangement, she never held a candle for him, remaining happily married and engrossed in familial duties. But she laments the loss of her past, the death of a possibility, of what could have been.
Why are women the subject of a majority of Rituparno’s movies? Women, especially Indian women, seem to be facing the conflict of emotions that Rituparno sought to portray, on a daily basis. They are caught in the crossfires of conforming to societal norms, finding themselves, and asserting their free will. At each juncture, they must face the dichotomies that the world has to offer them. Ghosh’s Dahan (Crossfire) provides a perfect, poignant picture of the predicament of womanhood. In the marketplace scene in Dahan, Romita’s (Rituparna Sengupta) husband stares at a mannequin wearing a short skirt, but refuses to buy it for her, stating his parents’ disapproval of them as the reason. When she is catcalled by a group of men, he gaslights her, accusing her of engaging with them. When Romita is assaulted in the middle of a public space, several passers-by condemn the act and express their sympathy and disgust, however, none of them stop to help her. It is only Jhinuk (Indrani Halder), a schoolteacher who despite warnings from her co-travelers, decides to chase away the goons. Immediately, her ‘act of bravery’ is applauded and becomes the talk of the town. The same society, however, shies away from dialogue over sexual harassment and women’s safety. Both Jhinuk and Romita are forced to deal with a major conflict of duties. While Jhinuk tries to help with the case investigation, she is forced to reconsider when it threatens her relationship with her fiancé. Being a financially independent woman, she has the power of making her own decisions and chooses to help Romita against all odds. But housewives like Romita are often bereft of such privileges. Romita deals with unwanted attention post-assault, neglect, and alienation from her husband. Ghosh provides a heart-wrenching portrait of her struggle in trying to juggle the roles of wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law. Romita must burn away her individuality in the sanctifying nuptial fire to become a subservient lady of the house, who does not get to have an opinion in a case regarding her own assault.
Women often find themselves confined to symbols of family honour, prosperity and even to the selfless roles of motherhood. When asked about Romita’s plight by a co-worker, her husband blatantly denies her assault, stating that she was ‘barely affected’. Another scene that illustrates this perfectly, yet quite subtly, is in Titli, when the mother finds her daughter crying at night. The wind removes the shawl from the mother’s shoulder, and as the daughter notices her lacy nightie, she is visibly outraged. She cannot seem to imagine her mother as one of those ‘real’ women that she sees in fashion magazines, who dress stylishly and express themselves evocatively (even though she may herself identify with them). In Raincoat, Neerja (Aishwarya Rai) is forced to choose between love and financial security. Her choice of the latter is not understood by her lover, but it is one that many have to make. As a widow, young Binodini in Chokher Bali (Eyesore) is supposed to lead a life devoid of any kind of desire. Being educated, expressive, and strongly opinionated, she finds this impossible to follow and we see her emotions get the better of her quite often, manifesting in jealousy and attempts to manipulate well-wishers and admirers.
A strong theme of solidarity amongst women is seen in all of Rituparno’s films – the friendship that Binodini and Ashalata have, the quiet understanding that the mother-daughter share in Titli, and the way Jhinuk and Romita are willing to defend and stand by each other at every step, despite being strangers. Above all, the characters in Ghosh’s movies are empowered by their choices and propelled by their beliefs; whether right or wrong, these choices are their only means to assert their identity. An innocent teenager crushing on a movie star her parents’ age, angsty estranged lovers and nostalgic reminiscences on rainy days; how real are these characters, and how real are their feelings. Rituparno does not shy away from exploring the subtleties of myriad emotions. He ponders over them, holding each thought sacred in its unadulterated form, gently dissecting through them to create long drawn silences that are filled with music and poetry, expressing what is left unsaid.