'Megha Dhaaka Taara', and Balachander's 'Aval Oru Thodarkathai' which was inspired from it, are odes to the silent long suffering women of the sub-continent.

Indian cinema needs a feminist reading Applying our FItMus test to Ritwik Ghatak
Flix Cinema Wednesday, April 19, 2017 - 13:08

This is a part of The FItMuS Test series by The News Minute. Please read the first part here: Indian cinema needs a feminist reading: We present to you, the FItMuS Test

If there is one Indian filmmaker who has consistently presented the woman’s perspective, it has to be Ritwik Ghatak, with his nuanced blend of melodrama and realism. His most commercially successful film Megha Dhaaka Taara (1960) is ironically always classified as art house cinema. An essential part of the parade of internationally acclaimed Bengali films, ‘The cloud-capped star’ makes quite an impact at festivals, retrospectives and classrooms.

The travails of a young single woman who takes on the role of sole breadwinner at the cost of her personal desires and dreams is told in a poignant way in the backdrop of the migrant world of Bengal. (If it sounds familiar to some of us down south, this was the inspiration for K Balachander’s Aval Oru Thodarkathai). In a refugee camp in post-partition Calcutta, young Neeta becomes the elder sister who is exploited by a manipulative pair of parents only to be left behind ailing and dying by a host of selfish younger siblings. Selfless and sacrificing, she denies herself even simple luxuries such as an extra pair of sandals that becomes a metaphor throughout the film, we see her wane and wane until the final frame where her feeble cry “Brother, I want to survive/live” is amplified with its deep yearning. Many a toughened viewer is left with damp eyes as the film ends on that plaintive note.

Before we analyse, a quick recap. The Bechdel Test requires a film to have at least two named female characters that actually converse in a scene, but not about men or romance. If not, the film gets an ‘F’. The Sexy Lamp Test insists that if the static women characters could be replaced by a lamp that could titillate ‘the male gaze’, the film will get a ‘D-‘.

The Maka Mori Test (2013) and the Furiosa Test (2015) demanded that that not only should women have well developed character arcs, but that there should also be clear female orientation to the happenings on screen.

In an attempt to indigenise the female reading of popular films in India, we came up with the Female Integrity, Male Utility Sensitivity test. It proposes that along with the rules above: one, we need films to have ‘female character integrity’ (meaning character consistency); two, that they not be there for mere ‘male utility’ (on and off the screen) and finally, that such female characters be handled with cultural sensitivity.

Two tests – the Bechdel and the Mako Mori - are already passed with an A Grade with several women characters named – Neeta, Geeta (her younger sister), and the Ma (mother in Indian film is most often just called that, Mother), who have several conversations, the women vendors and finally the young woman who takes on the metaphoric baton from Neeta. While Geeta seems to have only marriage and men on her mind, Ma discusses family, finances, fortunes and traditions, and Neeta asks for a strong moral and work ethic from her siblings and parents. Neeta asks her mother why it is that the brother gets to marry and leave the family home.

And the narrative arcs are done with clarity as the protagonist goes from breadwinner to burden, Geeta from simpering maiden to fulfilled motherhood and the mother from an exploitative leech to benign matriarchy.

Gita Dey, who plays the mother, brings a new dimension to the mother-daughter relationship with her expressive eyes especially when she encourages Geeta to flirt with Neeta’s boyfriend ensuring that her ‘golden goose’ Neeta remains unmarried.  And Ghatak uses the sound of boiling water and the bubbling rice in the foreground that is often symbolic of her churning mind as she connives to keep Neeta single and working for the family, and callously tosses her aside when she can no longer provide and needs care.

With the three women forming a sort of fulcrum around which the sad tale unfolds to see various facets of womanhood, and funnily enough with Geeta’s character, the film fulfils the Furiosa test though not with that much fury. So, it would be a C- and once again when it comes to the Sexy Lamp, the director may be guilty of showing the men in a passive, wimpy and selfish way and making the women stand out all the more with their courage, silent strength and focussed goals. Clearly an A + in this test.

The Female utility is evident as Ghatak explores the many nuances of the societal gaze and the prescribed gender roles, and how these are then curiously twisted to accommodate the need of the family. While society and patriarchy usually defines gender roles of man the provider and protector, and woman as the dependent nurturer, here the father, mother and siblings happily comply with the swapping roles since it suits them. The ‘A’s keep piling up in this and the following test parameters.

We watch with growing fascination as the family takes advantage of her and quite often, Ghatak allows us to glimpse what is in store for the protagonist as he is slowly but surely reduced to a shell of her former self.

In a telling moment, Neeta sings as she looks at herself in the mirror in a rare gesture of self-indulgence that is juxtaposed with the mother’s malevolent glare above the smoke emanating from the pot. The audience knows her dreams will be dashed without a second thought to be sacrificed at the family altar. That the younger brother and sister do not even glance back at her struggle, and that Geeta is actually apprehensive to have her around her husband, reflects the plight of the young single woman reviled and feared by the same society that happily utilises her hard work to fulfil their desires. But there is nary a hint of Male utility in the storyline, their lives revolving around sheer post partition angst, with the men left floundering and finally abandoning their responsibilities altogether.

The culture sensitivity test is met with aplomb. The mise-en-scène of the refugee camp, men and women toiling to find a footing in a world of shifting borders is evoked through the rough homes and the sundry families who people the lanes that Neeta navigates as she leaves for work. The riverside and the banyan tree representing the few tranquil spaces that these poor of the land seek solace at is symbolised by the sharing of dreams and songs by Neeta and her brother. And at the end of the film, as we are still caught in the echoing reverberation of Neeta’s cry of despair, we see a young lady limping her way through the same lanes as her sandals trip her up. We are left wondering about the many Neetas whose journeys we can only imagine.

At a time when the debate rages about abusive relationships and their celluloid portrayals, the brilliance of this star shines through as a beacon, for any of us who are disheartened by the rising regression in films today.

As an ode to the silent long suffering women of the sub-continent, Megha Dhaaka Taara stands out with a score/grade of distinction.

The writer is a feminist scholar, an independent documentary filmmaker, writer, Visiting Professor of Film, Kenyon College, Ohio and an eternal optimist.

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