SATYAJIT RAY - THE ULTIMATE FEMINIST
Youtube is a veritable source for discovering all that you thought was gone a long time ago; I recently discovered a few songs that I had probably seen once on Chitralahari from what seems like eons ago, and there seemed no hope of retrieving those. Youtube also has almost every Satyajit Ray movie (from his body of roughly 30 films) in HD, some of them even in Blue Ray disc quality. Quite a few of them feature English subtitles, though I have been trying to watch them (started this ritual two weekends ago) without seeing the subtitles (basically trying to brush up my Bengali, you see!).I think Satyajit Ray's 'urban' movies are vastly superior to his attempts at portraying rural milieu - something he personally thought Ritwik Ghatak did far better than him. Most of his movies involve male protagonists; in fact the only ones that involve a female protagonist (that I can recall) are Charulata and Mahanagar. However, his male protagonists inevitably encounter a pivotal moment with a female character, and this encounter forms the crux, the punchline of the story. Ray's subtlety in handling this crucial juncture showcases his complete mastery of the craft of cinema. In fact, I think there is NO filmmaker in the world who has a parallel body of work, particularly in the portrayal and understanding of women.
Charulata is based on a Tagore short story of a lonely housewife of a rich man, who develops non-platonic feelings for her husband's cousin brother. For a movie that came out in the early 60s, it is to Ray's great credit that he makes the viewer empathetic to the woman's situation, and not dismiss her feelings as immoral.
Prathidwandi, Seema Baddha, and Jana Aranya (translated as The Adversary, Company Limited, and the Human Jungle - the last one is the more accurate translation though the last title is often translated as The Middleman) are considered his Calcutta trilogy. I haven't seen Prathidwandi; probably this weekend. A fourth addition is his Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest).
Seema Baddha is about this smart, ambitious, well educated, and sophisticated executive at an international company who eyes a coveted directorship in the company. When he encounters a technical problem that could potentially jeopardize his career slant, he creates a fake story about union unrest, and even engineers a bomb going off in the factory to buy time to settle the technical problem. His bosses are pleased with his 'outside the box thinking' and he gets the coveted post. But it comes at a cost.
Jana Aranya is the story of a young graduate who decides to be a businessman instead of trying to find a job working for someone else. He learns that it is far easier to be a middleman rather than make something originally. Again, he comes across a situation where a large consignment, if approved would change his social and economic standing as a businessman. However, the procurement officer who needs to approve of the consignment has some requirements of his own. The protagonist is torn if he should indulge in this middleman business which he likens to the life of a pimp. Finally, after much thought he decides to go ahead, and agrees to do what he abhors, and lands the contract. Again, this comes at a cost.
Mahanagar starts off with a man losing his (bank) job, and so, to make ends meet, his wife is forced to look for employment. She lands a job and very soon impresses her boss with her efficiency and sincerity. As her boss decides to promote her, and also employ her husband in the company at a commensurate position, an event (that quite does not relate to her personally) makes her question her boss' integrity, and she quits her job. Of course, the couple are now back on the streets searching for jobs now.
In each of these three stories, the fate of the protagonist's socio-economic (rise/fall) is contrasted with his(her) moral/ethical defeat-in-the-face-of-victory/
In fact, in all the three cases, the woman is Ray's moral center. The man is a weaker species in his universe. Who else would make Kapurush (The Coward) casting his favorite Soumitra Chatterjee as the eponymous protagonist? The protagonist, a now-successful writer has a chance encounter with a forest officer when his vehicle has a breakdown, and learns that the forest officer's wife was his ex-girl friend with whom he had to break off because he had yet established himself. When he tries to woo back his ex girlfriend, she dismisses his advance; after all he was a coward when she wanted him to be 'a man'. His Nayak is actually the nayika, the compassionate journalist who pities the man for all that he has reduced himself to, and passes on the juicy story that could have changed her career trajectory. The heroine (for she is truly one) in Aranyer Din Ratri deliberately loses in the 'memory game' to the protagonist when she senses that his self esteem is fully invested in his winning the game, a game she was a master at, a game where she could recall the memory sequence long after they have moved on. Even in his movies where the female characters are not primary in any sense, they are the compassionate, humane, and morally upright characters, while his men have been beaten down by the tides of unrelenting moral corruption. Or at the very least, the only character to see the abject reality is a woman; in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, the Shabana Azmi character regrets that it was a better time when her husband sought the courtesan's place; after all, he then seemed to care about something rather than his current state of delusion and apathy.
In fact the only movie in which the woman is NOT his strongest character is Devi (The Goddess). But then it is more of a lament on how Indian society has imprisoned the woman with a false sense of elevation to the status of Goddess, a position from where she can only look helplessly and not actually do anything, despite her earnest desire to intervene.